Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Republic of Betters

I keep meaning to write something on the intensive series of reflections on blogging – now unfolding across several posts – that has been taking place over at The Kugelmass Episodes. While I was able to participate in the very earliest rounds of these reflections, my schedule has intruded recently, and so I wanted to draw attention to the discussion arc in a more comprehensive way here.

Joseph first voiced concern about the self-referentiality and closed character of certain academic blogs, a post which then led me to offer a bit of a “wild sociology” on what I speculated might be intrinsic tensions created by the search for interdisciplinary discussions. To quote a slice from one of my interventions:

The content/community balance is a difficult one – among other things, because the fact that blogs break across established institutional and disciplinary barriers actually necessitates the negotiation of some kind of common frame of reference that makes productive, high-level discussion possible. Of course, some blogs are happy to host free-for-alls of ever-renewed mutual incomprehension… ;-P But if you want to use the potential diversity of a blogging community creatively, generatively, this probably does mean letting a community hash out its own rituals, references, and rules – and these shared norms, plus an active knowledge of the history of the discussion in a particular community, does tend, over time, to raise the barriers to participation for new posters – and raise the risks that established posters will cold shoulder anyone new… Some blogs won’t mind this process of closure – they might be perfectly happy to communicate with the community that has already coalesced around them. The challenge is for those blogs who want to remain open: how can we do this while (1) facilitating the kinds of shared vocabularies that enable productive communication across backgrounds, and (2) dealing with the sheer weight of our own accumulated histories, so that a lack of knowledge of the sorts of discussions that have already taken place doesn’t unduly disadvantage new participants…

But shared vocabulary – of the sort that develops in particular in longish discussions that perists across blogs or within a blogging community over a longish period of time – can be both absolutely essential to a high-level discussion, and also extremely difficult to communicate easily to new readers… But really productive, cumulative discussions – exactly the sorts of discussions I most want to have – come at a price, in terms of what they ask from new readers… And sometimes even old ones: I’ve had a couple of long-term readers mention on back channels that they are having trouble following posts related to cross-blog discussions because these posts place them in the position of seeing, effectively, half the conversation – either because they’re not following links over to the other blog (just because I read specific blogs, doesn’t mean my readers feel compelled to…), or because, when they do follow such links, they find the unfamiliar discursive environment too alien (they’ve gotten used to my style, but don’t want to adjust to someone else’s when they don’t plan on reading regularly)… So my guess would be that, from the standpoint of at least a few folks who are otherwise very interested in what I write, I’m engaging in too many referential conversations that seem exclusionary…

…the medium has its own dynamics, and requires a delicate balance between producing content and producing community – a balance that, I suspect, becomes more and more difficult as blogs become better established… And that, like all balances, spends most of its time out of its ideal equilibrium state… ;-P

Joseph then responded by reiterating his concerns with the risk of closure and referentiality in blogging communities, and suggesting some standards for ensuring the continued openness of blog content:

I think that “continuity” is a fairly hard thing to achieve on the Internet, and I haven’t been particularly happy with where I’ve seen it lead. For example, it often leads to paralyzing rhetorical identities for given bloggers. I like the medium best when it is pithy, provocative, and alive with the enthusiasms of the moment.

Most of the personal interactions to which blogging can lead ought to be carried out via so-called “back channels”: e-mail, instant messaging, and (eventually) phone calls and visits. A blog can be anything its user wants, of course…but as someone who wants to provide and peruse writing with intellectual content, I recognize the obligation to the stranger who arrives via a blogroll, or a forwarded or re-posted link, or via Google.

And the discussion continued from there, spilling over a bit into a post at this blog, in which I expressed my concern – not with Joseph’s post specifically, but with the tendency to set down proscriptive rules for the conduct of academic (or other) blogs.

Here my schedule overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t participate in the discussions that centred around Joseph’s subsequent posts. First, in a lovely post titled The Ivory Webpage, Joseph rejects the common distinction, highlighted in a recent Acephalous discussion, between “academic blogs” and “academics who blog”, and proposes that we move away from the notion of academic blogging altogether. Joseph proposes instead breaking down the professional and ivory tower emphasis suggested in the term “academic” blogging, and moving toward a notion of “intellectual” blogs – a term that I very much like, particularly given that I actually use this blog specifically to explore a great deal of content that I regard as “intellectual”, but that has no clear cut and easy relationship to more normative kinds of academic writing. At the same time, though, I honestly can’t recognise much of what I do here in Joseph’s elaboration of the concept of “intellectual blogging”, which he defines in terms of its “focus on culture and politics”, and which he also seems to suggest should observe a standard of “accessibility”. My thought was: not much of any of that going on around these parts… ;-P Does this mean I have a… nonintellectual blog? ;-P

Joseph moved on to a more lighthearted post on blogging faux pas. This post suffered, I suspect, from having been sandwiched in between posts on blogging that were much more serious in their tone and intent – even recognising that the post was intended to be humorous, I found myself running down Joseph’s list, thinking of all the posts I’d written that had committed precisely these “sins”, and wondering how Joseph finds the time to maintain such high standards… ;-P I should note that one of the posts at this blog did receive positive mention for its “excessiveness” – i.e., for that special kind of obliviousness and unconcern for my readers that regularly leads me to write blog posts that massively exceed the short, pithy length that is supposed to define the medium, while also holding forth, repeatedly, on highly idiosyncratic topics that one wouldn’t specifically expect to hold much interest for regulars (Klein bottles, anyone? poverty of the stimulus?). I take this to be a bit like Joseph’s version of awarding the Kinsey Memorial Golden Gall Wasp prize for dogged persistence in pursuit of interests unfathomable to anyone else… ;-P

Joseph then moved into the always dangerous ground of discussing flame wars and appropriate standards for self-expression in intellectual discussions online.

I take it that Joseph’s intention in writing these each of these posts was, partially, to be self-reflexive – to explore the standards he wishes to adopt as a matter of personal ethics and reflexive practice – and partially to be sociological – to explore the impacts of specific practices on blogging culture.

Nevertheless, as expressed, some of the recommendations sound quite proscriptive: I found myself, as I read, unable to stop myself using the standards set forth in these pieces as one might one of those self-help articles in a grocery checkout-stand magazine: ticking off the posts on this blog against Joseph’s criteria. By the end, I think I’d managed to demonstrate that, by Joseph’s stated standards, I’m a rude, boring, exclusionary, self-referential, in-joke obsessed, non-intellectual blogger… ;-P Please note that I don’t seriously mean this – or, more to the point, I don’t think Joseph seriously meant this: among other things, because he has several times held up this blog as a positive example of what can be achieved through a form of intellectual blogging. Nevertheless, I wondered whether there might be a tension between, on the one hand, what Joseph is seeking to do and, on the other, his specific strategy for framing the issue – a tension which sometimes managed to suggest a judgmental stance that, having interacted with Joseph for some time now across many discussions, I very much doubt he actually intends.

Some commenters, I gather, had similar reactions. Tomemos, for example, suggested:

More broadly, I also would tactfully submit that it is perhaps problematic to suggest how people should generally be populating their blogs—or at least, it’s problematic to suggest how they should not be populating them. After all, very few of us are doing this for our jobs, and many of us are writing as much for ourselves as for an audience. That being the case, I don’t think the relationship between blogger and reader is as straightforward as it is between, say, a commercially-released film and its audience: the blogger is rarely dependent on the reader for support, and the reasons to blog are potentially much more varied than the reasons to make a movie. The epithet “plagiarism” in particular is strong meat; I sometimes get tired of endless YouTube vids too, but the author is hardly passing off other work as his or her own own. I suspect that you have in mind blogs which were once creative but have succumbed to the entropy of endless linkage, but as written it seems categorical.

To be clear, I’m not saying that one should always be mum about what happens on the internet—for instance, since blog/online etiquette is a matter of how we treat each other rather than just a matter of preference, discussing it certainly seems legitimate to me. I’m sure that comes as a great relief to you.

And from the (understandably more emotive) discussion on flame wars and appropriate standards of self-expression in online debates, Namaroopa argued:

Bluntly: I’m saying that I don’t care what you want to read. I don’t want instructions about how to feel for blogging in such a manner. I am not in any way central to this discussion, but a lot of other bloggers I can’t speak for have said similar things before. To me, the topics people are flaming about are not a debate game. Debating other people’s choices subjects them to the possibility of losing.

The original post read that way to me especially because you describe “bad” irritation, the example of doing something better, and the “we” assumed about readers’ positions.

While the always brilliant and inimitable belledame insisted:

at any rate, i gotta say, I do bridle at the suggestion that i am “unhinged” because i use terms like “fuck you, shitbag.” particularly when those phrases are directed at people who in fact have been incredibly, sweetly venomous, without so much as raising their voice. That casual observers don’t see the poison behind the reasonable sounding language is 1) why it’s so bloody effective and 2) why some of us lose our shit every so often, out of sheer frustration. I am sure that it would be more -politically- effective for me to manage to not lose my shit ever, and you know, i’ve been working on it? but at the same time: yeah. I really don’t want to lose any more sleep over the idea that somewhere, someone who hasn’t spoken up and never will, might be offended.

These reactions – which I think relate more to the form, than to the content, of Joseph’s posts – bring me back to the point I raised in my initial intervention into this recent round of discussion about academic blogging:

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?

And yet, of course, we each do want to have specific kinds of discussions – and not other kinds – and we each have an interest in the spread of the forms of discussions we would like to take place. Proscriptive standards are certainly one way to try to achieve this – and, in a purely professionalised blogging space, they might in fact be quite effective. But if we are to take seriously the potential expressed in Joseph’s “Ivory Webpage” post – the very important potential, I think, of bridging professional and nonprofessional spaces into a broader intellectual blogging sphere – the proscriptive route is both difficult to pursue, and arguably in structural tension with the kinds of discussion we’re trying to promote.

Perhaps a more adequate concept, to replace the notion of proscriptive standards in this context, would be something like model practices? Demonstrating, through a standard of writing and discussion on our own blogs, some of the potentials of the medium? I think Joseph engages in such model practices – and, I suspect, this recent round of posts was simply an attempt to refine those practices through more overt and shared reflection. The issue is how to phrase this kind of reflection so that it centres on how we can personally better meet our own ideals, and then invites others to help us refine these ideals and formulate them in better ways, rather than suggesting – as I’m sure Joseph had no intention of doing – that others have fallen short of ideals we have arbitrarily set for them. That, or we can just use my “excessive” approach – and write whatever the hell we want, and assume the readers will sort themselves into the communities that appeal to them… ;-P

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3 responses to “The Republic of Betters

  1. belledame222 January 21, 2007 at 7:42 am

    ah, shucks. fanks.

    you know, i was just thinking recently that with my obsessive little categorization for my behemoth blogroll, i maybe should consider doing one for academic ones, because actually there are a lot of ’em, and i just added one where i didn’t quite know where else to put ’em, and that made me all bewildered and cranky for a while.

    but, then I thought: well, yeah, what -is- the difference between an academic blog and an academic who blogs (many of whom are in the personal category because they write just as often about puppies and domestic life and relationships and popcult and shit).

    and then that reminded me about all the -other- blogs that they could go in so many other places and maybe they should and why do i even need to categorize anyway and i said “fuck this” and then i had to go lie down for a while.

  2. Joseph Kugelmass January 21, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    NP, thank you for this response. I very much agree with you that “model practices” are the logical place to go with this line of reasoning; in retrospect, the fact that the year-end posts, the “Ivory Webpage” post, and the new flame war posts were almost all in a row (interrupted only by an essay on a TV show) makes them feel like a series, and a much more prescriptive series than I would like.

    This is actually the result of coincidence, though I’ve been thinking about these things since I started blogging. I’d been planning to write the year-end posts for some time. Meanwhile, the notion of the “academic blog” was raised by the presentations at the MLA…and then shortly thereafter followed the LittleLight fight. None of this was happening in October, or I might have written one or more of these posts then.

    Also, much of what I was writing assumed a critical position towards my own blogging. I considered doing a “Worst of Kugelmass 2006,” but decided that would be a little unnecessarily self-undermining…sort of the way that Belledame, in the comment you re-posted, doesn’t feel the need to apologize for her rhetoric, even while she is continually considering and revising her approach.

    In any case, were I starting from scratch, my guess is that these posts would look more like a positive manifesto, focusing on several themes:

    a) What “content” is, and what undermines content or mimics it.
    b) My moving from an “expressive” theory of blogging, based on authenticity, to a “rhetorical” one based on communities.
    c) Universalism, which means both accessibility and right of access and response.

    The question of content is probably the one I’ve developed most thoroughly in these posts. I’ve been circling around the idea that since I’m now blogging under my own name, my ability to write a truly expressive blog is very much curtailed, basically because I can’t write about huge chunks of what happens to me (thanks Google!). So, my notion of my blog’s role and the blogging “community” to which it belongs has changed.

    On my blog, I never want to defend a rhetorical move on the grounds that I needed to express myself in a particular way for personal reasons (like emotional release). I only want to present my ideas about my own experiences, and culture and politics (including things like theory, sociology, and so on, which I consider very much part of culture).

    Similarly, on my blog, I never want to make a reader feel that that they don’t have the right to disagree with me, or can’t understand how I feel, just because they’ve had different experiences. That’s what universalism means to me, and it’s one of the primary reasons I read and write. From what I hear, Sinthome (at Larval Subjects) is a practicing psychoanalyst, but he never makes his readers feel that they either need to have his training, or simply to read more, in order to have the right to comment. All sorts of other political and cultural blogs, however, do take this position if you disagree with them: you have no right to disagree because you don’t know what walking in my shoes is like (this sentiment strongly flavored a recent exchange about MFA programs, of all things.) Some of the harsher notes in my recent posts came out of disgruntlement with blogs that simultaneously want readers, and claim to want discussion, while later resorting to identity categories or experiential differences as a way of cutting debate short.

    It seems to me that there’s a lot of value in thinking these things through, and talking about them explicitly, in addition to attempting to follow model practices. Blogging has moved from a technical / personal binary to something else, which I don’t think has been well-defined yet. That “something else” doesn’t have to be one thing. For example, the blog Unfogged is an interesting, insular blog with a witty community of regulars who tend to write digressive jokes and to write off the tops of their heads. It resembles the late stages of a party full of academics on their night off. I can’t keep up with it, and I have trouble even catching up with its in-jokes…it’s really not the blog for me. Yet I have no problem with it. I respect it the way I respect anything funny.

  3. N Pepperell January 21, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    belledame – I’ve thought about categorising the blogroll too, and then thought – oh, but then I’d need to put some blogs in more than one category – and then – oh, but some blogs don’t really “have” a category – and then thought – oh god, just more work than I can be bothered with… ;-P Unfortunately, my schedule right now doesn’t seem to leave me enough time for a lie down – although the idea sounds really good… 🙂

    Joe – Thanks for the considered response (and sorry to hit you with a ginormous post on every free association I’ve been having about your own posts for the past several weeks – it was just one of those periods where I kept meaning to jump in, and was just never able to find time and brainpower at the same moment – and so here we are…).

    I do actually think it’s clear enough from your posts that there was a self-critical intent – you mention it explicitly on several occasions, and you are also clearly processing your own “content” as you talk through the issues. I don’t really think you have to worry that the posts looked solely outward directed – my concern was, really, that I think the concept of an intellectual public sphere that spans academic and non-academic spaces is a very important one – and that you are absolutely right that this issue was getting lost in all the discussion (which was already problematic enough in its own right) of how to “professionalise” discourse to make blogging respectable for academic purposes. Once we orient ourselves to this kind of decentred space, though, it carries with it some structural implications, in terms of the need to operate via persuasion rather than centralised imposition, etc. – and I think your posts make it clear that you’re well aware of this (it’s one reason to talk about standards of discourse).

    At the same time, I think you’re spot on to draw attention to the function often (not always) served by the rhetoric of “authenticity” – which, ironically, and in contradiction to the apparent meaning of this standard – is often wielded in a strange normative and regulatory way in discussions of blogging standards. It can also, as you note, create a strange rhetorical hostility toward responsibility to a community of interloctors. For some purposes, of course, the ideal of authenticity – and even hostility to a public sphere – might be completely appropriate. But I think that you’re right that these normative notions sit awkwardly, at best, alongside blogs that do purport to seek a broader community.

    I still get a little bit leery at the three standards you list above, as I think there is a strong value in preserving multiple approaches. I’m reasonably confident, for example, that my Google allergies (which exist, and very are strong in specific areas) are different from yours – and therefore this aspect of my notion of acceptable content would also differ. This would be even more the case for those who blog anonymously. At the same time, the level of long, difficult, not terribly accessible theoretical material I put up here, and the sometimes detailed and elaborate discussions that circle around it, actually seems to violate most common conceptions of appropriate blog content (although perhaps not yours). And yet my content works quite well for what I want to achieve here – while, at the same time, I don’t have any assumptions that my arrangement would work (or wouldn’t work) for anyone else.

    At the same time, I actually do “express” things here – often just garden variety frustration at the irritating sides of academic life. I tend to tuck such things below the fold, so they don’t get in the way of folks who just come for the theory, but my assumption generally is that such frustrations are often – sometimes in ways we may not fully appreciate – part and parcel of the process of production of more “serious” forms of thought. They are part of the everyday of intellectual life and, while I don’t plan for these forms of writing, I also don’t particularly withhold them when I feel the impulse… I’ve also, though, seen plenty of people draw their boundaries in different places: I don’t assume there’s any necessary generality to how expressive content combines with other forms of content on a given blog…

    And universalism is also highly contingent on the nature of the community: I could actually see communities that really need to exclude particular forms of discourse, or who aren’t specifically seeking new members who aren’t prepared to go through the hard yards of learning the ropes. My own approach sits somewhere in between: I don’t personally see why I should spend as much time worrying about someone who first stumbles across the site through a Google search, as I should writing for regular readers and commenters – but I also have a strong commitment (and not just in blogging) to making theoretical content accessible, and so I don’t particularly want to cultivate a closed community of theoretical adepts… I see these things, though, as highly idiosyncratic to the purposes of an individual blog…

    I suppose I feel something of a vested commitment to trying to keep blogging as undefined as we can – while also, of course, exploring the sociological or group psychological or whatever implications of specific approaches to blogging discussions. I wonder whether it makes sense to pitch at least some of the discussion, not in terms of standards we want to maintain – at least in the first instance – but in terms of what we’re trying to achieve through a blog? The discussion can then unfold somewhat immanently, asking whether a particular blog is conducting itself in ways that make sense, given what it is trying to achieve? (We can also ask, less immanently to an individual blog, whether a particular blog is allowing full expression of potentials available within the medium, and whether and to what degree it’s problematic if this doesn’t occur…) It might clarify the degree to which manifestos and such are intending to hold up a yardstick, or a mirror…

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