Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Blogging

Speech Impediment

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…

Industrious Inaction

Scott Eric Kaufman has gone on strike, refusing to add new posts to his blog until a particular comments thread reaches 500 comments – terms and conditions apply, see blockquote for details:

There will be no new posts on Acephalous until there are 500 (five hundred) comments on this one. The person who posts the five hundredth comment wins the honor of suggesting the topic of the subsequent post. Any comments containing the number four, a dollar sign or the open bracket/fancy-open bracket will not count toward the total, as those keys are missing from my keyboard.

I’ve told Scott that, should I happen to post the 500th comment, he will have to answer Sinthome’s question on determinate negation

Critical Self-Reflexivity

So L Magee has apparently decided to branch out into some independent research on the question of immanent theory – and as a result has now obtained independent confirmation that there’s no place like home. Apparently, googling “immanent theory” brings up, as a prominent result, the two dialogues we’ve jointly written on the issue here. For some inexplicable reason, LM found this frustrating:

I’m thinking, I don’t need to see my own discussion with N. coming up as an authority…

But LM: don’t you trust me?

I Do

This may be just about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen (it helps if you’re somewhat familiar with L Magee’s site and the topics discussed over there):

“HI! I’ve have similar topic at my blog! Please check it..

To the hundreds of fastidious commentators out there – I would love to “check it”. But the link always goes to some site which sells pharmaceuticals or other products I have no interest in. I really appreciate the sincere effort to connect on an intellectual level with my various interests: social theory, philosophy, computer science, the Semantic Web – but I’m not sure how your “blog” is “similar”? Did I miss the link to biological ontologies on your site?

Anyway, would love to discuss this further. Great blog by the way.

It does raise an interesting question, though: what kinds of spam would be relevant to your interests, LM? Perhaps you should engage in a bit of ontology-matching with some representative spammers to see whether your worldviews have more in common than you currently imagine. Perhaps there’s even some commercial potential here – a scale, perhaps, of the likelihood of spammers reaching intersubjective consensus with particular kinds of websites…

Dancing with Myself

So recently I’ve noticed that people who know me personally have started citing my blog back at me in theoretical discussions. Often in situations where they remember what I wrote far more clearly than I do… It’s a strangely effective argumentative move: I sit there wondering, “Did I really say that?”… And then: “If I did say that, was I right?” ;-P

Street Corner Virtual Society

Going to the train station around midnight last night, I passed a frustrated man talking to someone on a public telephone on a major street. “Blog!” he was insisting, “No: blog! B – L – O – G! Blog! Look… it’s a kind of online diary, okay?!”

Blogging for the Bottom Line

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has a post up about blogging as self-experimentation, in which he notes the following effects of blogging – persumably on himself:

Blogging makes us more oriented toward an intellectual bottom line, more interested in the directly empirical, more tolerant of human differences, more analytical in the course of daily life, more interested in people who are interesting, and less patient with Continental philosophy. All you bloggers out there, or spouses of bloggers, what effects do you notice?

I run afoul of the Continental philosophy effect – and am likely also to be an outlier on issues related to the greater appreciation of the directly empirical – but I still enjoyed the post and the subsequent discussion. My favourite comment thus far is this delightfully cynical observation posted by mk:

I really enjoy the fact that blog posts tend to be terse.
I think there are not enough penalties for being verbose or poorly-organized.
Most books strike me as unnecessary. Powerpoint, maybe with a 20-page supporting paper, would do a better job in most cases, I think.

One disadvantage is that blogs may not provide the most natural framework for organizing complicated arguments. But (as with books), we may simply be deluding ourselves if we believe we can understand most complicated arguments anyway.

Regular readers of this blog will not be much tempted to call me “terse” – although L Magee has suggested that, when I do manage a terse post, I sometimes do so artfully… ;-P But LM’s perception of terseness may have been irrevocably impaired by our recent reading of Hegel… ;-P

All That Is Solid…

Abstract figure under seigeI’ve been flitting around a bit this morning, as I tend to do when trying to complete essentially administrative tasks – I generally have a long list (either in my head or, if it’s particularly complex, written out) of relatively atomised things I need to finish. I learned some time ago – one of the lasting legacies of managing a business – that I could work most rapidly if I would skip over any item on the list that – for whatever reason: mood, complexity, resources, etc. – I didn’t feel I would complete as quickly as possible. This strategy means that I keep working on something – that something gets done – and that I don’t delay finishing simple things I’m in the mood to do, because I’ve held myself up with complex things I wasn’t… As things get done, and I loop back through the list, I often find that I’m now in the mood to do something that seemed unappealing earlier – or that I have gotten through enough that, if I now have to spend quite some time ferreting around after bits and pieces required to finish a task, or if I drag out a task I dislike, this process won’t hold up everything else I need to complete.

Before starting on a complex task, I also tend to spend a bit of time thinking over what it will involve and what I’m trying to achieve – getting the relevant issues in my head. And then I take a quick break to do something completely unrelated – basically, because I find that, as with so many other things, I tend to sort things out somewhat nonconsciously, and this process facilitates a certain level of nonconscious problem solving… Lately, the unrelated task to which I turn my attention is often blogging – so readers can tell, if I have a spurt of fragmentary posts in a day, this means either that I’ve had a day filled with meetings with tiny breaks in between that aren’t suited to any other productive purpose, or that my blog posts are functioning like tick marks on my list of things I needed to get done… ;-P

Today has been a day of tick mark blogging. Read more of this post

Don’t Mention the War

Sarapen and I were just discussing the other day our mutually vague relationship to the war over “theory” that periodically ebbs and flows across various blogs we lurk. I commented that it made me feel somewhat of an inadequate ethnographer, that I couldn’t seem to get a better feel for this dispute – a comment that already suggests that I experience myself in a strange side-on relationship to this discussion, such that I have a bit of trouble imagining how I’d intervene in any way other than ethnographically.

The latest iteration of the debate, for anyone who’d like to follow, was, as far as I can tell, initiated by John Holbo’s post at The Valve, which was then picked up by Adam Kotsko at The Weblog, and in a different way by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted to I Cite). I don’t intend here to comment on these (quite elaborate and extended) discussions, but instead to point to what seem, to me, to be some interesting conversational eddies operating to the side of the main fray. I wanted particularly to draw attention to:

Joseph Kugelmass’ contribution at The Valve, which sets itself the quite ambitious – but important – goal of addressing the questions:

why I think the debate has taken its current form, what it means to do theory while fully aware that one is doing so, and how all this relates to blogging and the blogosphere ideal of good faith

And Sinthome’s analysis at Larval Subjects, which asks how these debates might refract themes related to the assertion of institutional power, and whether this might encourage a tendency to reach for an engagement with overarching catch-all categories, rather than with the substantive arguments of individual theorists. Sinthome’s post ends with a challenge I see as particularly important in any debate over theoretical systems:

However, as a more pressing matter, what I can’t figure out is what alternative there might be to Theory. If the critics of Theory wish to convince me that they occupy a superior position they’re going to have to offer me something in return, some sort of option or some sort of alternative. All of my analytic training– and by this I mean Anglo-American philosophy –teaches me that there is no such thing as a non-theory laden perspective. This is the lesson to be drawn from the likes of Sellars. What, then, is this non-theory laden perspective of which these critics seem to be speaking?

At the moment, my schedule really doesn’t allow me to comment in any substantive way on the overarching debate, but I thought it was at least worthwhile pointing to these pieces in particular for the productive questions they pose and the way in which they seek to slice through the major stakes in the cross-blog discussion.

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