Posted by: Andrew | November 2, 2007

Blogging thoughts on blogging thoughts

A post that flirts with a kind of tedious self-referentiality, but I wanted to set out some thoughts inspired by a few things of interest this week that emerged across a number of different blogs and on-line journals I read.

1. A recent visit to Rough Theory alerted me to the point-counterpoint debate between Adam Kotsko and Scott Eric Kaufmann in the November 1 edition of Inside HigherEd on the virtues and downsides of academic blogging – as well as to the very nicely written reaction by Joseph Kugelmass on Academic Blogging Revisited. The debate between Kotsko and Kaufmann reveals contrasting attitudes that are apparently two sides of a coin. I don’t want to discuss the exchange at length, since the pieces should be read on their own rather than interpreted through my poor attempts at summary. At the heart of the debate, though, is the status of a kind of ideal of blogging as a vehicle for realizing conversational community, if you will. Is blogging a place for the free-wheeling and reciprocal exchange of ideas and arguments, a plane of virtual equality in which processes of informal communication can bear fruit, producing positive effects of both an intellectual and emotional kind? Or, is blogging becoming an arena in which institutional hierarchies and intellectual rigidities resurface – at best a device for the intellectually isolated to find temporary connection, as the need arises? Kotsko emphasizes the latter; Kaufmann the former – but it’s hard not to see merit and reason on both sides.

2. Which is, I think, the attitude adopted by Kugelmass in his reflection. He implicitly thematizes an important consideration that academic bloggers would do well to pause and reflect upon: yes, conversational community – but to what end, and for whom? Though Kugelmass doesn’t use this metaphor, I think of the question in this way. Are we simply mapping out our own territories, whether held individually or with a few like-minded others, within which we each do our own thing, on our own schedule and according to our own individual needs? On this model, academic blogging is about having polite, friendly, productive visits across the fences we construct – or, if things turn nasty, a retreat back into our respective homes. But perhaps this underestimates blogging’s potential, and Kugelmass raises the more ambitious objectives that we sometimes attach to blogging as kind of collective endeavor entailing the exercise of power: can it not be something that carries with it the potential to not just interpret, but change the (academic) world? If so, we have to expect as a matter of course some degree of involvement in the turf wars and hierarchies of the Academy:

If blogging itself is to become a valuable resource for a broad group of readers, and a force for change within the academy, bloggers must embrace the power that organization and collectivity confers. The alternative is innovation in a vacuum. The fact that, at certain times, collaboration produces turf wars, is evidence of the fact that something emerges therein worth fighting for. Readers do not, as we sometimes imagine, flee in horror from fierce debates across blog lines; instead, that is often precisely what engages their interest, skeptics and enthusiasts alike.

De-centered blog conversations are often stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book. They are adjunct to academic institutions. But the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.

Similar kinds of aspirations for blogging as the vehicle for ‘discursive will-formation’ to use a favorite Habermasian term gets expressed in sociological circles about blogging and ‘public sociology,’ which was discussed at last August’s ASA conference in New York, and which I interpret as an agenda for making the discipline institutionally and societally relevant once again. But before I can consider such objectives, it’s still finding a personal voice rather than participating in a collective one that forms the main reason why I blog. Though I welcome readers and comments, my blog is still more of an introduction of myself to myself, or to my own computer screen, to borrow a joke from a well-known sociologist.

3. Also, when it comes to academic blogging my worries tend to focus less around the loftier, unrealized ideals than signs of danger from more immediate and prosaic sources: of institutional co-optation and of irrationality. Regarding the latter, there’s of course a lot of irrationality everywhere – in everyday conversation, on the streets, in the media, in our politics – that we acknowledge and that’s part of the background noise, or at times explicit focus, of our academic work. But there are occasions – even in the Science Blogs, where such topics as the relation between science and religion are sometimes discussed in the most personal and vituperative manner – when academic blogging itself becomes a vehicle for generating or attracting a kind of communication that’s less than ideal, whether by choice or not. And then the costs have to be weighed and assessed.

My concerns may be prompted by Jeremy Freese’s decision to put JFW on hiatus – which I, like many others, greeted with a tinge of sadness, as it had become required reading in the few months since I started reading blogs. However, blogging ought to be an act of the free will, and his decision was made more understandable when it became clearer that he was being forced to contend with some personalities that cast a pall on the value of the enterprise. As bloggers become virtual celebrities they attract readers, and usually that’s a good thing; but this certainly changes the dynamic of blogging for blogger, and for the field in which the blog is situated. More purpose Jeremy indicates that he started to feel like a weird jester-statesman for sociology. That’s an understandable reaction: for my own part, even though I never took his often wry and funny posts on things often whimsical and mundane as ‘jesterish’ I did see them, in a peculiar way, as representative of a kind of sociological sensibility – reassuringly ironic, observant, and sane – that I wish was in greater evidence around the academy, and not just in sociology. But I would imagine that it would be odd to find one’s blog carrying that kind of gravitational weight, and having to deal with some of the lunacy that it attracts.

4. On the ‘institutionalization’ of blogging: I view with a little perplexity and consternation the profusion of blogs on the (web) pages of official media and official culture – it seems like everyone who writes for the New York Times, for instance, now has a blog, and it won’t be long before people are saying, as I think I read somwhere, that blogging ‘is so 2000, isn’t it?’ (or something to that effect). That’s the kind of dismissive phrase that’s so New York, isn’t it? But as blogging ages, it risks being put into the service of more institutional purposes. A relevant example can be found on Rough Theory, where N. Pepperell recently posted on her university’s endeavor to enlist academic bloggers in a ‘tumblelog’ – a packaging and consolidation of material by different bloggers into a single site, for purposes of public presentation and presumably marketing of institutional expertise. My own reaction, admittedly conditioned by a reflexive cynicism toward undertakings of this sort, is that even as a well-intentioned effort, this is perhaps not the best way for an institution to go about branding and presenting its knowledge base. Blogs, or academic blogs, seem to me to most engaging as places where ideas and arguments are thrashed out between like-minded and sympathetic interlocutors: the ideal of conversational community, suggested above. Thus I’m sympathetic to the vision of blogging as a connection between not only between a blogger and his or her audience but among different blogs and bloggers, in which there’s an emergent reciprocity of roles as readers, writers, posters and commenters. How blogging is served by being tied to a marketing scheme is not apparent to me, though if I were invited to participate in an on-line forum strictly structured to permit academic blogging on academic topics, I would.

5. A summary: a couple of months ago in a post on ‘Educational blogging and discontents,’ I addressed a debate on the potential value of bloggging have in pedagogical contexts – more K-12 than in university settings – as an instrument of instruction. I find the sort of ‘this is the technology that will get students motivated to learn!’ attitude that gets bandied about in education circles rather willfully naive, but that’s another debate. But I thought then as I do now that 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 iconsthat 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.

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Responses

  1. Andrew,

    Thanks again for this.

    Many bloggers are able to overcome the problem of unwanted commenters through moderation and banning. I like everything I’ve read on this subject, from Bitch PhD’s “Obnoxious comments get deleted. Deal.” to Twisty Faster’s incredibly long set of conditions for commenting. (Feminist blogs deal with tons of bad comments, so they wise up quickly.) At the Valve, we’ve got a commenter who for years has tried to sabotage that blog and all directly or tangentially connected blogs with nasty, contemptuous comments. We still end up reading the text of his banned material, but it never shows up on the site, and you learn to put it out of mind.

    So perhaps Freese will return. Meanwhile, I’m interested in your references to humor and irony. Scott’s blog does well because it’s often funny, and Scott enjoys writing that way. I also love teh funny, but started blogging in part to have a medium where I wouldn’t have to be funny, since cracking jokes seemed so mandatory at cocktail parties and the like. Being funny can turn into a cage, or it can simply lose its equilibrium, as with Stephen Colbert’s new book, which is WAY too much of a good thing.

    My sense is that it is the writerly tradition (for example, the essayists I mentioned in my post), rather than the purely critical tradition, which will navigate us through the paradoxes you lay out so well — for example, the tension between the desirable inwardness of blogging, and the pull of an audience.

  2. Thanks Joseph. I agree, a writerly rather than a purely critical tradition would be helpful – my inclination is that blogging gains by trying to navigate rather than fully navigating the paradoxes, though sometimes pain in the ass comments diminishes the experience. In any event, I appreciate a sense of humor that knows when to display itself and how heavy or light the touch ought to be; i.e., when it’s funny to be funny and when it’s not. That kind of writing I enjoy, but as a part of a diet of reading, of course.


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