Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Blogging Terminable and Interminable

Lots of discussions around and about relating to the temporalities of academic blogging – both in a general sense, in terms of whether overarching trends within the broader field of academic blogging might be normalising some of the diversity of early academic blogs, and in a specific sense, in terms of whether a particular life cycle might be characteristic of academic blogs – whether, for example, individual blogs tend to have a certain lifespan before they close or transform into something more professionalised.

I’ve been involved in discussions at Acephalous and The Kugelmass Episodes, and have been lurking bits and pieces of the discussion surrounding Michael Bérubé’s decision to cease blogging, which extends, as you would expect, across a number of blogs.

It’s a funny thing, the issue of ending a blog. It’s honestly something I didn’t think about, when I started one – not that I assumed I’d keep blogging forever: I just literally didn’t think about the issue. (Nor, to be honest, did I think at the time about the relationship of an individual blog to an overarching context of academic blogs, nor – ironically enough, given that I spend most of my time thinking about other kinds of historical trends – historical trends affecting blogging as a medium.) I have thought of course about taking this blog down on a number of occasions, but I’ve generally perceived my impulses to do this as personal ones. I’ve never related these personal impulses to more general trends – a position on which, of course, I could be mistaken even in relation to my own site, and which I certainly would never assume applies to others, whose blogs could easily be more centrally positioned to be caught up in general trends than mine would ever be, or whose authors might have purposes that depend on specific overarching trends…

Still, I’m hesitant about the various sociology-style theories floating through some of the current discussions (although I’ll confess to offering some of my own from time to time…). My main reaction, I think, is to worry that many discussions reflect the tendency to overgeneralisation that has been so characteristic of analyses of blogging since its advent – blogging as revolutionary, blogging as detrimental, blogging as a fad, blogging as the new mainstream, etc. I guess my question is: why are we so tempted to generalise this medium? Does it need to be one thing? Do its mechanics really dictate a strong and pregiven trajectory for the realisation of its potentials? Do we need a consensus on where “we” are going, with our writing in this form?

These questions probably come across more critically than I mean them. I think what I’m trying to do is just draw attention to the potential that there might be something “sociological” about the tendency to discuss the medium in such generalised terms – to extrapolate so strongly from what the medium might mean to us, or to our small corner of the blogosphere, or to prominent people with whom we have some identification. This sociological phenomenon is potentially worth analysing in its own right – not to criticise or refute it, but just to understand the temptation to engage in it… I don’t have such an analysis ready to hand… I just keep finding myself struck and slightly confused by the search for generality that surfaces periodically in bursts of collective wondering about what “we” mean, engaged in a practice some of us seem very much to want to perceive as possessing shared and essential dynamics… Perhaps such dynamics do exist – this is worth exploring, but I’d like also to suspend alongside this exploration the issue of how our articulations of those dynamics (narratives of decline, professionalisation, structural transformation, etc.) are themselves shaping the dynamics we happen to find…

But it’s been a very long day for me, so I’m probably not writing this in any particularly useful way. Perhaps others will be able to say something more useful – likely are saying things more useful in some of the discussions linked above.

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2 responses to “Blogging Terminable and Interminable

  1. Joseph Kugelmass January 12, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    NP, I really loved this post. I agree with your implicit statement that we shouldn’t generalize blogs. They are as flexible as language itself, in many ways, and they have the potential to be as broad as ourselves.

    That said, I can see some value in turning this critique back against the blogs themselves. Why do blogs fall into patterns of repetition, of needless whimsy, of jokes that fall down flat? I’m kidding, but I do think the tendency to decline into memes and empty verbiage creates some of the impulse to generalize.

    I think of blogging rhetorically, for the reason (which seems fair enough) that I do have an audience, and couldn’t really have a blog without one. I don’t need to blog about what I ate for breakfast, unless I can think of something to say about that…because I already know what I ate, and it’s usually Cheerios. So I do think of the blog as a way of building relationships with readers, and that starts to impose rules on how the blog works.

    Of course good blogs are always testing those limits; that’s an axiom borrowed from art, which is also engaged with an audience. That said, I do find that the fluid possibilities of blogging, and the imperative of free, spontaneous self-expression, are often covers for other things, such as exhaustion coupled with a desire to retain an audience, or desirable but embarrassing kinds of rhetoric. For example, many blogs which are apparently personal and confessional have a strong element of glamourization (I would include some of my own entries in this), which is actually rhetorical (Other-centric) rather than purely expressive.

    For my part, I’m critically concerned with maintaining a useful self-consciousness and rigor, because I think that’s what’s makes a blog exciting. When we throw overboard any particular concern with what a blog can be (which is different from acknowledging different possible concerns), in favor of a sort of undifferentiated “bill of rights,” the result is the blogosphere becoming thinner, vaguer, and definitely less compelling.

  2. N Pepperell January 13, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Yeah, I worried a bit, after I had posted, that it might look as though I was myself trying to rule out individual and collective efforts to reflect on or discuss ideals for the medium, when I’m actually quite supportive of such efforts – not just in relation to blogging, but in relation to any form of collective practice.

    I think I’m struggling a bit to specify when I start getting worried – I think it’s when attempts to reflect on the medium seem… er… not as reflective as they should be – when they either take the form of something like proscriptive pronouncements, or when they fall into overgeneralised sociologisms. My fear is that these particular forms of discourse might have a chilling effect: I’ve certain seen people who have ceased blogging, who have themselves cited such discussions to say that the medium was now evolving into a direction such that they could no longer participate, etc. It’s an interesting case study, in a way, of how a kind of social constraint could operate in the absence of any effective enforcement mechanism…

    But yes: I do agree that the purpose of a particular blog imposes its own set of more intrinsic constraints – one of the issues I was trying to reflect on at your site, in relation to my own purposes, as I think there probably is a level of intrinsic tension in what I’d to achieve here. And it is an open question, as you’ve suggested in various places, whether particular blogs are, so to speak, adequate to their purposes…

    The issue of rhetoric – and the construction of an online persona or authorial voice – and how this interacts with a ritualised trope of authenticity, is an interesting one. My thoughts on the issue aren’t very well-organised at the moment. I have a strange check and balance on the construction of a rhetorical voice here, because a number of readers know me in person. This certainly doesn’t prevent glamourisation or the cultivation of a particular kind of rhetoric – it does, though, ensure that the discussion here occurs within certain parameters (as does the fact that I’m not blogging anonymously…).

    I’ve wondered occasionally what, if anything, I might change if none of my readers knew me in person – probably nothing in terms of the theoretical content, I’d guess, but perhaps a bit in terms of the balance between theoretical and other content… I’ve wondered more frequently how readers who do know me in person think of my blog writing – whether they see any kind of disjoint between the “me” they know in person, and the “me” who writes here…

    Regardless, the distinction between rhetorical (other-centric) and expressive may be at least somewhat problematic: perhaps I’ve just been hanging out at Larval Subjects too much, but I suspect that most of us express ourselves in and through our acts of relating to others… So the issue becomes more – and I take this to be your key point – the function served by the rhetoric of pure expressiveness – by the normative notion that this is what a blog is “supposed” to be: a discourse that, in its own way, can be as dogmatic as any set of proscriptive rules intended to make blogging safe for professional practice…

    Apologies if this is very confused – I’m having a bit of a low sleep week… 😉

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