A Skeptic's Take on Academic Blogs
In the blogging circles in which I run, one of my many claims to fame is the extent to which I am tired of blogging. I am the author of several pieces on the drawbacks of academic blogging in particular (see, for instance, “On Academic Blogging: A Diagnosis”), and I seize upon any evidence of momentary fatigue or frustration in other academic bloggers as proof of my prescience and insight.
What has caused me to become so cynical at such a tender age? Certainly I can’t deny that I have benefited from blogging -- I’ve met some interesting people and even gotten a couple publications (albeit non-peer-reviewed) out of it. I also can’t deny that I was once among those I now berate as “blog triumphalists.” For approximately two years after I graduated college, my blog was a lifeline for me, and my circle of blogging friends at the time started a fairly ambitious series of reading groups under the Derridean title of “The University Without Condition.” Our first discussion, of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” was enthusiastic and productive, but things gradually tapered off. Since that time, blog-based conversations have nearly always been disappointing to me.
So one way of investigating the origin of my negative attitude is to look at what might have gone wrong with the University Without Condition. First of all, the initial discussions took place over a widely-dispersed network of blogs, which produced an open-ended effect. I hosted a central clearing-house post on my own personal blog, but in theory, anyone could participate in the discussion, either through their own blog, through the comments on someone else’s post, or through some combination thereof. The result was a conversation that was free-wheeling and often difficult to follow, especially for those who were not comfortable with blogging technology. However, when we eventually decided to pool our efforts in a group blog for the sake of convenience, we found the new setting to be stultifying. Why the change?
I have come to the conclusion that what was so good about the original disorganized format of the University Without Condition conversations was precisely that it was so decentralized. This feature allowed it to escape one of the major pitfalls of conversations based in blog comments -- the inherently hierarchical nature of the format. In blog comments, someone has written out a thoughtful post in what they will often regard as their own personal space. They have an established community of commenters who are, for the most part, sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Thus, when someone comes along and starts criticizing the original post, there is naturally a temptation toward “circling the wagons.” Additionally, comment forms are generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation -- with the paradoxical result that one will either dash off a quick comment that by definition cannot match the rigor of the original post, or else an overly long comment that people will experience as an imposition. Having various people responding on their own personal blogs rather than in comments gets around all these problems -- the conversation is decentered, not localized to anyone’s “turf,” and people are more likely to write lengthier, more thoughtful responses if they are producing it for the sake of their own blog instead of writing something that will be hidden away in some obscure corner of someone else’s comment sections.
Unfortunately, the trend in my corner of the academic blogosphere has been toward assembling group blogs with some particular mission or outlook. For a time, a particularly toxic relationship developed between two academic blogs, Long Sunday and The Valve. Long Sunday was originally formed with the ambitious goal of providing an alternative to the (still) dominant academic group blog, Crooked Timber. The contributors all shared a strong interest in continental philosophy and literary theory. The Valve, by contrast, had a strong skepticism about literary theory and in fact featured many posts critiquing the entire enterprise -- together with a book event surrounding an anthology called Theory’s Empire, which positioned itself as “dissenting” from the hegemony of Theory in literary studies. (At the time, I was an occasional contributor to Long Sunday, and my particular loyalties were broadly in line with Long Sunday’s.) Broadly speaking, the dynamic in the various debates between The Valve and Long Sunday was that Long Sunday tended to read The Valve as attacking the entire enterprise of continental philosophy in favor of a more Anglo-American approach, whereas The Valve consistently viewed Long Sunday as failing to provide any definite idea of where The Valve had gone wrong or even what they understood The Valve to be about. As time went on, this dynamic became a negative feedback loop that predecided every argument in advance -- to the point that two years later, certain parties (including me) still periodically argue about the exact stakes of those disputes.
It seems to me that there was a kind of short circuit in these conversations -- a minority tendency in literary studies (The Valve) was coming up against a minority tendency in American philosophy departments (Long Sunday), resulting in a kind of missed encounter where the stakes revolved more around institutional insecurities rather than the supposed "substance" of whatever we were talking about. I believe that this effect was exacerbated by the quasi-“institutional” nature of the two respective blogs. The various debates may still have been just as heated if the various group loyalty issues were not in play, but they probably would have been more intellectually productive. There are enough institutional turf wars in academe – if blogs are to play a productive role in academic discourse, they should not gratuitously recreate those same dynamics, and for me that means moving away from having quasi-institutional group blogs with stated missions and back toward conversations dispersed among many blogs.
More than formatting issues, however, I think that everyone needs to realize that having a productive conversation in an online format is very hard work, which is why it happens so rarely. Many bloggers can point out online conversations in which they were pushed to think in a new direction or got genuinely valuable feedback on a question, but as with all human endeavors, there is a high percentage of dross to go along with the occasional gold. Policing comments is a difficult job, and efforts to keep conversations on-topic or ensure that contributors have some substantial knowledge to share will often cause resentment in light of the “democratic” leanings of online communities. All this is on top of the obvious problems with online interaction as opposed to in-person conversations.
As more and more academic resources become available online, hopefully academic blogs will begin to fill a role analogous to the political blogs that link to and comment on particular news stories -- that is, bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience. I hope that events like this will help to push more journals toward open-access electronic formats. Failing that, however, academic blogs seem to me to be best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences. I know that my interest in blogs peaked when I was living in the rural town where my undergraduate institution was located. I was fortunate enough to find a vibrant intellectual community in Chicago, so that I frankly don’t need blogs as much as I once did. If I were asked why I don’t just quit blogging if I’m so tired of it, I would have to say that the answer is finally that I recognize that I may not always be so lucky: I may need blogging again.