Against Phalloblogocentrism

January 3, 2007

Not quite 40 years ago, Andy Warhol said that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. It was a good prediction, one that verged on announcing a new entitlement. By 1997, someone had tweaked it for the post-Warholian digital era. “In the future,” the formula now went, “everyone will be famous to 15 people.” Again, a good call. Presumably the next version will involve intervals of 15 seconds.

But a small crowd gathered for a much longer interval on Saturday to attend the session of the Modern Language Association convention called “Meet the Bloggers.” While introducing the panelists, I quoted the “15 minutes/15 people” formulae – and added a corollary that seems to apply to academic bloggers: Anyone who wins more time or audience than that must bring to the table a particular knack for the kind of discussion fostered by the medium. Being well-respected within one’s area of specialist concern is not quite the same as being able to hold one’s own in what the maverick American cultural theorist Kenneth Burke called “the parlor.”

Here’s how Burke explained the image, back in 1941:

“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

The ability to orient oneself in that sort of free-for-all requires a kind of discursive finesse that probably cannot be certified (let alone quantified). For that matter, there is no particular reason to equate success in this endeavor with reaching a vast audience. For some topics, 15 people is a lot. Just this morning, for example, I saw a blog post that started by asking, “What is the future of phenomenological geography, and why is this question even important?”

Well, it’s a big parlor. It contains multitudes. And even if some administrators fail to grasp the fact, the existence of such a space provides a necessary -- if at wildly unregulated -- supplement to the standard venues of publication and formal scholarly gathering. Whenever the phenomenological geographers do get together face-to-face, for example, it has to make some difference that they have already had a chance to talk in a forum that is also potentially open to objections from structuralist geographers who don’t wish them well. (Please consider that a hypothetical: I don’t actually know if there is such a rumble now underway.)

The four speakers at the MLA session had each found a broad audience, as academic blogs go. The organizer of the event, Scott Eric Kaufman, a senior instructor in literary journalism at the University of California at Irvine, has a personal blog and also writes for The Valve. The latter was founded by the second panelist, John Holbo, who is assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and the editor of Glassbead Books, an imprint of Parlor Press. (The name of which comes from that Kenneth Burke passage. Small world!)

The third panelist, Tedra Osell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph, is very much better known as Bitch, Ph.D. (Even though Osell has now very publicly "outed" herself as Bitch Ph.D., it still feels like a violation, somehow, for anyone else to do so, although I use her name here with her permission.) And the last speaker was Michael Bérubé, whose day job is professor of English and cultural studies at Penn State University.

The text of Kaufman’s and Holbo’s papers can be found online, here and here, respectively. Bérubé indicates that he won’t be making his discussion of the phenomenon of the “blogspat” available online, if only because it would probably just start another one. But I’d like to think that Osell’s talk will end up in print soon. It would yield a well-turned essay on blogging, gender, 18th century periodical literature, the vicissitudes of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, and the paradoxical overtones of the pseudonym “Bitch Ph.D.”

There was one moment in Osell’s presentation that must have hit close to home, given the panel’s Y-chromosomal preponderance: her reference to the “old-boy network” in the blogosphere. This is no joke -- and no exaggeration, either. Just before heading off to Philadelphia, I had photocopied an article from the summer 2006 issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly called “The Gendered Blogosphere: Examining Inequality Using Network and Feminist Theory.” Looking it over now, it’s striking how exact her formulation really is.

The authors, Dustin Harp and Mark Tremayne, are both assistant professors of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. “Sampling over one year from blog rankings,” they note, “we found that 10% of the top [political] bloggers were women.” They consider various explanations of why this might be, but conclude that “the linked nature of blogs” has had a skewing effect given certain tendencies familiar to network theorists.

“Original players in any network have an advantage,” write Harp and Tremayne; “the longer you have been around, the more links you are likely to acquire. In the 1990s men outnumbered women on the Web by a sizable margin. While that is no longer true, the early advantage may continue to grow and snowball. But this explanation alone cannot explain the pattern.”

A “second principle of network growth -- preferential attachment -- may [also] be responsible,” they suggest. To rephrase this in terms of the Burkean “parlor” analogy, the Internet throws open the doors so that many more participants may enter the fray. But if the conversation long-since well underway is headed in a particular direction -- if a few topics are dominant, and a few very full-throated conversationalists are making themselves heard -- it had can very difficult to get a hearing.

“In attempting to ‘subvert the hyperlink hierarchy,’” as Harp and Tremayne conclude, “women bloggers may be unwise to remove all links to the top male bloggers because linking tends to be reciprocal behavior. But positive action is needed. More links between and among women bloggers and others who understand the importance of inclusive spheres of discourse will be a step in the right direction.”

But will it be enough? You have to wonder. The problem seems to run deeper than network-generated patterns of communication. For example, the editors of Inside Higher Ed tell me that the site’s readership is more than 50 percent female. But you would never know it from the comments section -- which, during a full moon, is populated almost entirely by 60 year-old guys complaining about Ward Churchill. (Even if the topic is federal funding for astrophysics research, Ward Churchill is making it worse, somehow.) It is possible that I am exaggerating but that is often how it seems.

Now, there is no bias in favor of running such comments. As a venue for discussion, the comments section beneath each article is quite open. You have to avoid libel, and stay at least somewhat on topic (with “somewhat” being the operative word). Other than that, it is a very accessible forum -- and it would be a good thing if more women took to it.

The same principle applies to the blogosphere, academic and otherwise. But it’s easier to say this than to overcome either resistance or inertia, whether among writers or readers. For now -- as Osell’s paper at the MLA made clear -- pseudonymity is as viable and necessary a solution as any at hand.

“We all joke that ‘on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’” she said. “But it seems to me that, in fact, this isn’t true. Even unschooled readers are fairly savvy about generic form, and one of the formal conceits of public discourse is that people whose social identities are marked as “other” -- women, in this case -- will, when writing personally, draw attention to their persons. Pseudonyms prevent texts from being impersonal, from pretending to objectivity; they draw attention to the author’s role in a way that a straight byline does not. At the same time, though, pseudonyms make a text more fully public: by hiding the author’s identity, the author becomes potentially anyone. Pseudonyms mean something, and one of the things they mean is that the pseudonymous writer has a reason for pseudonymity.

“When pseudonymity becomes a generic feature, as with essay periodicals and blogs, one of the things that means is that the genre entails risk, that publishing is risky.... The desire to talk about work conditions, or personal problems, or politics, or parenting is (apparently) more important than fears of being fired, or embarrassment, or shamed.  But because those risks are real, writers publish pseudonymously.”

One bit of news from the old boys’ club started to circulate just after the panel: the decision of  Michael Bérubé to wind down his blog, which has been running at a steady and even breakneck pace for three years now.

"The blogging has started to take three to four hours a day for longer posts, and one to two for shorter ones, and my days aren't so fluid anymore,” he told me. “But actually it's the longer term that has me worried. Right now I do the blog, plus teaching, plus all the usual committee things, plus some other writing, plus hockey. Something's got to give, and even though the hockey's the obvious first choice, I figure I only have another five years of meaningful hockey in me (‘meaningful’ here means ‘hockey in which it actually matters to either team whether I am on the ice or not’).”

The reference to a five-year window turns out to be overdetermined. He is now writing two books, one called The Left at War, the other Disability and Narrative. (“No overlap whatsoever, I assure you!”) And he might write a sequel to Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child, his memoir about raising a son with Down’s syndrome.

“As it happens,” he says, “Jamie is out of school in another five years, and whatever arrangements we make for him, they will be vastly different than the arrangement I have now. Indeed, this will be the last year in which he has his after-school program, and in a few years his summer program disappears, too.... The thing that jumps out as being the least necessary to my overall well-being between now and 2011 is the blog.”

Given Tedra Osell’s paper during the panel, I wondered if he had any insights, as an old boy leaving the network, about what would be necessary to change things.

“More Tedras!” he answered. “Besides that, of course, it hasn't escaped me that the vast majority of academic bloggers are junior faculty and graduate students. Most female academics' blogs are anonymous, as well.  Both things are related, and both things are factors. Perhaps the Valve and Crooked Timber lineups could use some shaking up, or perhaps there could be a few similar group blogs made up mostly of women.”

He noted that things actually have begun to change to some degree outside the academic blogosphere. The feminist group blog Pandagon has “something like five times my readership of 9,000 people per day. How much longer will it take before the academic blogosphere sees the same kind of thing? I have no idea. Another 2-3 years? I think it'll depend on how many female graduate students and junior faculty keep it up, and how many do it under their own names -- post-tenure, I would guess.”


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