Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Georges de la Tour MagdaleneThe sorts of conversations that have been possible on this blog, and on the other places I’ve stumbled across since starting this site, have been more important to me than I can easily express. Online interactions can be difficult to navigate – misinterpretations are easier, conflicts can escalate more quickly, discussions can spiral in more negative directions, than similar face-to-face interactions. I’ve been active in online discussions of various sorts since back in bulletin board days, and so I have a fair sense of what can go wrong.

When I realised people were actually reading this blog, that conversations would be possible about my work here and at other sites, I wanted to see whether it were possible to incubate different sorts of interactions than I had had in the past – interactions where contention and debate could take place without the sometimes ugly spirals that can characterise online discussions. And I also wanted to escape some of the constraints of face-to-face discussions, to feel free to extend myself intellectually in ways that often aren’t possible in traditional institutional settings, to make an advantage out of some of the depersonalising elements of online discussion, in order to have conversations that can explore ideas in a way that separates those ideas more from the person who puts them forward, than is generally possible in face-to-face interaction. None of this is some sort of ideal of communication – I don’t think communication “ought” to be so abstracted from the personal – but it was the specific form of communication I was seeking out here, as a form of interaction less available – for me – in face-to-face settings.

I’ve discussed in earlier posts the reasons that, initially, I posted pseudonymously here and why, even when I decided to “out” my identity, I still didn’t use my first name, even though it was easy at that point for anyone to look it up: previous experience in online discussions had shown very clearly how quickly things could go in very ugly gendered directions – I wanted at least the buffer provided by gender not being immediately evident to drive-by visitors to the blog. To the extent this is ever possible, I hoped people might deal with my ideas, and not with “me”, unless we were having a discussion where something about my personal background was relevant. Again, I’m not stating an ideal here – not suggesting that this is what discussions “ought” to be, or that it’s inherently better to differentiate ideas from their bearers, or anything like that. I’m just describing what I see as a very personal motive for seeking out a very specific kind of interaction that is difficult to find elsewhere, where for a period I can worry much less about gendered interpersonal dynamics than I often can in everyday life.

Gender issues aside, I also made a decision, which perhaps I follow through on better at some points than others, to try not to take offence at the things people say or the way positions are articulated – to try to find the best point I can see, in whatever position I’m addressing, and respond to that. This doesn’t prevent miscommunication. Sometimes the best point I can see, still isn’t what the other person meant – sometimes other people are offended by what I intend to be a positive restatement of what I take them to be saying – things still go wrong. Generally, though, on balance, and with most people who have landed here, I hope I’ve been largely successful at communicating that I’m interested in taking other people seriously, in de-escalating and redirecting conversations that seem in danger of getting a bit heated, in having largely productive discussions, where it becomes possible – for me at least – to learn something from them. It’s what I’m looking for from blogging, and largely it’s what I’ve managed to find here.

Sometimes it fails spectacularly. One recent interaction – I won’t link to it, but have screenshotted it, blanking out the other person’s photo and identifying details. I stumbled across a blog referring to an event in which I participated recently. The post plugged the event, and then quoted some text from my blog, made fun of the complexity of my writing, and then asked a question about what I was trying to say. Part of what I mean, when I talk about trying to respond to the best point I can find in something, is that in general I seriously don’t take criticisms personally, even when they are voiced disrespectfully – and, if I’m going to respond, I address my comments to the substantive points raised, and generally aim for discussion, rather than for self-defence. So I responded; and the reply then consisted of this blogger’s description of the kind of sex he fantasised having with me (if folks care about this sort of thing in deciding whether to click through, it’s not a subtle comment).

My main reaction to this is a feeling of tired familiarity at how often exactly this sort of thing used to happen when I posted in discussions where my gender was more evident than it is here. There are some other complicating factors, which I won’t go into here, which make this incident less removed from my real world life than I would like. I don’t know what sort of discussion I’m looking to open, by posting about this… Incidents like this are depressing, in what they show about the ready-to-handness of this kind of behaviour. But I think what is striking me about this incident, is the way it reinforces something I’ve been feeling about publishing (as, of course, we all need to do) in settings other than the blog. Although this guy quoted some material from the blog, he knows my name – and therefore gender – from the conference program, where, along with all the other presenters, I spelled the name out in full. Every time I have provided details for a conference program or other material I knew would end up online, I’ve felt very conflicted over doing this, because it means that my full name now circulates, immediately gendering my work – taking away the possibility of the less pronouncedly gendered interactions that I’ve been able to cultivate online. I think I’ve been telling myself, as I hand over what should be this least personal of personal details, that I am being ridiculous – that I’m experiencing something as a loss, when nothing is really taken away. I think this incident stands out for me as an indication that I wasn’t entirely wrong – that something has been lost, and that a further level of anonymity – at least to casual readers – has been taken away.

The thing is, the way I’ve carved out a space here is, I know, a very apolitical response to a political problem – I’ve opened a level of freedom for myself by creating a small space of personal ambiguity, which has meant that it’s generally only the folks who stick around, who have some curiosity and interest in what I’m writing, who know much about me personally. This strategy doesn’t hit at the fundamentally political issue of how knowledge of the personal is wielded. So there’s a sense in which this sort of temporary shelter I’ve erected here has perhaps never been appropriate. But it has been more important to me than I can adequately explain to be able, for a time, in one part of my life, not to need to worry about such things…

We’ll see if I keep this post up :-) I’m not sure yet whether I’ll think better of it and take it down…

12 responses to “Metonymy

  1. Praxis March 16, 2008 at 3:52 am

    Oh jesus what a nightmare. Not sure whether, given all you say in your post, it’s even a good idea to comment – these aren’t, after all, the kind of conversations you’re trying to foster here. But for what it’s worth I – and I’m certain a whole bunch of others out there – enormously value the space you’ve created here, the time you put in to conversing with others, and the generosity with which you always approach those conversations. (Quite apart from the interest and value of whatever’s said). I don’t think I know another site so free of the pugnaciousness and violence that characterises so much internet ‘debate’. I suppose I mean that, while I see what you mean about partial anonymity, I don’t think you should ever worry that the way you approach blogging has not been appropriate. IMO, it’s exemplary. [Please feel free to delete this comment if you feel it's unhelpful; or, of course, if you delete the post itself.] Take care.

  2. WildlyParenthetical March 16, 2008 at 4:21 am

    For the nice and public record, I’m with Praxis on this one. I suspect that many people think that women who keep anonymous online are over-sensitive or over-reacting. This is a perfect example of the extent to which it really *doesn’t* matter how you interact with some people; your gender is going to be enough to produce this kind of vile bile.

    You’re extraordinarily brave in responding to it, I think, and for maintaining the generosity that you have worked so hard to protect in this space, *even* in the face of… *that*. To speak may be a risk, but once again you enable not just this kind of conversation, but make possible the recognition of the position women are so often put in, and perhaps even assist others who are attacked in a similar way to be aware that they have options beyond the only occasional satisfaction of antagonism or hostility, and the often-unwilling acquiescence of silence… I have more to say, as ever, but you probably know most of it. But I, for one, am grateful and a little in awe (in amongst horrified at he who shall not be named.) You rule. ;-)

  3. lisa March 16, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I echo my thoughts on your courage. These comments are clearly beyond the pale. They are mysogonistic and really harassing.

    I think you are right to expose this kind of behaviour. Harassment should not be suffered silently.

    I for one am outraged that this is directed at you. Your blog has touched so many, including many us who don’t agree with the entirety of its content.

    And that’s the great thing about the blog – it’s a space for open discussion, to ‘think aloud’ so to speak. And to me at least, it has operated in the great traditions of comradely debate and discussion that have fostered important developments in left intellectual and activist approaches.

  4. lisa March 16, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    On gender and the blog… I concur that it is simply ‘nice’ to be in spaces, even if only temporary, where gender does not matter. They are a rare joy.

    To think and enjoy this does not mean that we are lulled into a false sense in which gender does not matter in general. In fact, it is the opposite… that because we are so conscious of how our experience of the world is coloured by our gender, we want occasionally to feel what it might be like should this not be so.

    This latest development just shows the truth of the adage that we cannot escape the world around us even when online; or at least, that any escape is only fleeting.

  5. lisa March 16, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    OK, so I’ve been moved by your post. I promise this’ll be my last comment… for a while.

    While avoiding something else I should be focusing on I decided to search through the archives of social realist art. I often turn to places like this for some inspiration.

    I stumbled across an interesting piece of writing, co-authored by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera. I particularly liked the idea that … we cannot remain indifferent to the intellectual conditions under which creative activity takes place.

    I thought this was a nice take on your argument in a way. About the need sometimes to step outside the society in which we live in order to ‘free’ (of course, the freedom is relative) your creative and intellectual thoughts from the constraints of our socialisation and other political pressures.

    Anyway, the piece goes on to argue much else. It can be found in full in the Diego Rivera section on MIA. It is called Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art

  6. Tom Bunyard March 16, 2008 at 8:46 pm


    That sounds horrible. I agree that the way in which you’ve conducted discussions here is exemplary – I’ve particularly enjoyed our conversation about Hegel – and am very sorry to hear that you were on the receiving end of such feeble and stupid behaviour.


  7. Floyd March 17, 2008 at 4:56 am

    It’s unfortunate that, as disgusting as that kind of thing is, it’s not at all uncommon. On the other hand, there are a great many more silent readers who are therefore not well represented (the empty numericality of stats probably doesn’t cut it). I agree with previous commenters that your work here is very valuable and generous and that you are very brave to pursue your principles even beyond the boundaries of this blog. But I hope the general psychological instability of some of the ‘lower’ elements to be found there don’t jeopardize what you’ve accomplished with this space.

  8. N Pepperell March 17, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Hey folks – Just wanted to thank everyone for the words of support, and apologise for being so slow in responding – was taking a bit of time away from posting, but will be back soon.

    Take care, and thank you…

  9. Mikhail Emelianov March 19, 2008 at 12:48 am

    This is pretty immature, I agree, there are plenty of such reactions, unfortunately, and even though I myself am known to be rude to admittedly moronic comments on our blog – esp. things like “if you are so smart to criticize X, why don’t you write something that is better?” but I always feel bad about it as if I was rude to someone in person… I think you’re doing a great job on this blog and I have been reading it with much attention for some time now.

  10. Joe March 19, 2008 at 2:35 am

    I’m really interested to hear more about the way you’ve reflected on online discussion., specifically that self-reflexive distance you’ve made operative in how you even approach online discussion.

    What you write here reminds me of so much of what I’ve found in online discussion, though I’ve probably been doing it for a bit less time than you. Sometimes I don’t know what to think of how profoundly lucid I feel communicating in online discussion, especially those ranging from real-time instant-messaging to the more turn-based, as it were, exchanges of comment-threads like this one. Emails and straight-up blog-posts feel more like term-papers sometimes, and it’s these other modes of online conversation that I really see my ideas flourish.

    I think it has to do with the an idea, like many, that I’ve taken from Zizek, though not really, since I was already doing it before knowing about it. In the “Zizek!” documentary, there is a moment where he talks about how he tricks himself into writing his many books. He says to himself that he’s just going to kind of take notes on his many ideas, and in the end edits them together and has a book. I think Jack Kerouac anticipate this when he writes in his list of “Beliefs and Techniques for Modern Prose,” “1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” You could say Emerson already saw something of this too in “Experience,” where he writes: “So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.” My point is that there is a certain kind of note-taking procedure that I think is more relevant to how we communicate, since what so many theorists are trying to distill is the immensity of the concrete world into the density of good writing.

    I also don’t want to forget to mention how I appreciate and feel I can relate to you on the issue of not taking things personally in online discussion. I think this can tie back into an essay that I’ve only ever read in the Zizek reader called “Is It Possible To Traverse The Fantasy In Cyberspace.” There Z is arguing with the same material you are presenting, as far as distancing while engaging in online discussion is concerned. What’s really interesting about written communication on the internet, as opposed to live-speech, is that it’s just plain easier to catch yourself getting riled up over an bleedin’ web-comment and say, “Gosh, that’s dumb of me.” The hope would be is that enough to develop an orientation like that in live-speech, where it is harder to take this distance, since such distance is actually the product of returning to the text, as it were.

    Aside from expressing my affirmation of you in light of those nasty things said by others, I’ll just say that what moments like those might be good for is noticing the very limits of this space on your blog. Of course, this whole post expresses how aware you are of their limits, so I say that more for others, but I think that’s pretty interesting and says alot about you. I emphasize that it’s about you because I see it as something you are doing – as opposed to, say, having gendered presuppositions foisted upon you by jerks who happen to know or think they know your gender. Contrary to what you say, though, I think that what you are doing on this blog, so far as it translates into your “real life,” is political, and not in the naive “the personal is political” sense either. There is empowerment in being allowed not to enjoy (the other person’s aggressive/objectifying assumptions).

  11. N Pepperell March 19, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Mikhail – I should also say that I have no objections if people decide to reciprocate, if someone says rude things on their site and such – my issue has just been that often I’ve been able to salvage a possibility for interaction, if I will sort of shrug that off and try to address the substantive points. Sometimes rudeness is pre-emptive: people do it because they expect a negative reaction, and so they decide to get a hit in first ;-), or because they have a history of poor interactions with people coming from some particular political or theoretical space, and so they initially engage with me as a representative, in a sense, of those past interactions. I’m happy to try to break through that sort of thing, by just letting it roll off me – mainly because it’s not all that easy to find people who want to talk about the sorts of things I like talking about, to begin with :-)

    But my official position on responses to rudeness is… Talmudic ;-) As in, the story of the person who offers to convert to Judaism if someone will teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot: there is Hillel’s response, which is to give an answer patiently even to the most unreasonable request (“what is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour”) – but there is also Shammai’s, which is to drive the nuisance away by threatening them with a building implement… ;-P Both sorts of response have their place… ;-P

    Joe – There is a possibility with online communication to step back and catch one’s breath, although, I have to admit, I spent some time working in conflict resolution roles, and find myself using somewhat similar orientations in teaching and in other forms of discussion – I’m not sure that the way I approach online discussions is that different from the way I approach public discussions in person. Personal interactions (and some public online interactions can have this quality for me) are those that don’t require this particular sort of orientation to interactions. Beginnings are often the trickiest parts of any sort of interaction – when people stay over time, relationships develop that have a strength to them that it’s no longer so necessary to worry about casual misunderstandings: people will stick it out, give the benefit of the doubt, forgive, etc. It’s nice when an interaction gets to the point when I can lose myself in it – not thinking about the interaction, but just expressing some aspect of myself within it.

    I don’t find emails and blogs posts as constraining, maybe, as you do. I mainly email, of course, with people with whom I have some kind of ongoing conversation (except for occasional situational circumstances), and I think I usually experience blog posts as having an audience of “regulars” with whom I’m comfortable speaking – even if I know that other people will be reading on. This was actually a major issue for me, when moving from writing for the blog to writing for the thesis – although most of my thesis concepts have been worked out here (under a system, as you’ve discussed above, of “tricking” myself into writing ideas out in a less structured way), and although I’ve written other theses, I really struggled to discover my “voice” in this thesis, since I had already discussed many of the concepts in the somewhat different voice I use here. It felt very strange to try to write these concepts in that new way… At this point, I do find that I am “getting something” from the more formal writing that I wasn’t getting from the blog – although what I’m getting (mainly systematicity, linearity and conciseness) is something I’ll end up tossing up on the blog anyway once it’s done… ;-P

    More real-time communications – chats and such – are not so well-suited to the sorts of conversations I have here, unless I know my interlocutor extremely well. Comments, which allow a good length of response, can be nice ways of doing the written equivalent of thinking out loud for me. And at this point I do find talking to someone else, more effective as a way of shaking loose my own thoughts, than writing to myself in notes or whatnot – this, though, is a product of blogging: I wouldn’t have felt this way starting out, at all… But I find at this point that I enjoy thinking through this and other blogs, far more than other media I might use when I’m trying to work out rough ideas…

  12. Pingback: » Since I Can’t Thank You in Person

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