(Painstakingly crafted by hand on a train from D.C. to Philadelphia and revised in Notepad on a cramped flight from Philadelphia to Houston.)
Below you'll find in situ the corpse of my lively talk. As will quickly become apparent, the word "talk" is no euphemism. I talked a talk. But I almost didn't. Like most panelists, I arrived in Philadelphia toting a paper to be read. Mine concerned the role blogs could play as virtual parlors devoted to the professionalization of sharp minds with rodential social instincts. The first two panels I attended reminded me of my own base nature.
The original version of my "talk" betrayed both the conventional insecurities of an MLA panelist—the first-year fear of imposture, father to outbursts profound only in oblivious pretension—and those specific to a graduate student addressing an "unserious" topic. Legitimacy being the motivation behind the panel, why not describe it in a style with impeccable credentials? Why not partake of the inflated rhetoric of the scholar? Two panels into my MLA-crawl, I remembered what my insecurities had obscured: barking fifteen-to-twenty minutes of academic prose may impress the three people in the room who've never encountered it before, but it alienates and infuriates those who have.
Those articles written to be read at conferences? They sound like articles, written to be read, at conferences. They are difficult to follow because their content hardly suits their form and the medium flatters neither, the equivalent of a novelization of a film based upon an interpretation of a novel.
Novelty aside, who would a book whose front covered declared it to be "based on Huck in Love, the Independent Spirit award-winning adaptation of Leslie Fiedler's seminal analysis of Mark Twain's Huck Finn in Love and Death in the American Novel"? Yet here we are, fidgeting through strings of words and accumulations of arguments best parsed in the privacy of one's own mind.
Exceed the limits of the audience's ability to track an argument and a talk will become difficult, yes, but so too does this sentence:
Tina told Mark that John thought Pauline knew what Sam had planned for Justine, but Pauline insisted she had no idea John believed that, nor whether the look Justine exchanged wth Mark at work yesterday meant that Tina had inadvertatly revealed Sam's trap before John and his brother Adam could spring it.
That sentence could be parsed, but not easily, not on the fly. Perhaps if acceptance packets included an audio edition of The Golden Bowl—or, better yet, Kant's Third Critique—and threats of dire consequences, of career suicide, if they did not become the soundtrack of the initiate's summer, perhaps then we could disentangle complex social relations and order subtle argumentation whilst inadequately-caffeinated in a dimly lit conference hall far from home. Given that academics should be skilled in this mode of communication, the incentive to cultivate such a specialized skill-set is slight. A well-trained audience would solve the problem, but so would a properly trained speaker.
All of which is only to justify the hours and hours I spent transforming my "talk" into one which could be understood when read aloud. On paper, the result of these revisions is less-than-impressive: it contains few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination. Instead, it presents, elaborates, then returns to a few key points. I pepper it with the "spontaneous" interjections and digressions which came to me as I delivered it, repeatedly, to the walls of my empty hotel room. Each read-through brought something to my attention, be it a wrinkled locution, an unpronounceable sequence of words, sentences larded with infelicitous alliteration and assonance, an appropriate occasion for a "spontaneous," witty aside, &c.
Why improvise once when you can round out your talk with a greatest hits culled from multiple improvisations? One final note: some of the things written below may not correspond, date-wise, to when things appeared on the site. That's because I based it on the date I wrote them as opposed to the one on which I hit publish. Also, the paragraph breaks don't work according to their normal logic so much as they represent me reminding myself to breathe.
On with the show:
I'll open with a quick passage from Deleuze:
Academics' lives are seldom interesting. They travel of course, but they travel by hot air, by taking part in things like conferences and discussions, by talking, endlessly talking. (Deleuze, Negotiations)
Two lines of thought follow: the first is that academics make for terrible bloggers because their lives aren't that interesting. The second, that since all they're doing is talking, endlessly talking, there's no reason not to extend the conversation online.
The former assumes that academic bloggers belong to the legion of online diarists venting splenetic about the minutiae of daily life; the latter, that academics participate in a unique—if outwardly dull—culture of intellectual exchange. Only, few people feel as if such an exchange takes place anymore. To make this point, let me draw a few examples from the most recent minnesota review.
Interviewing Toril Moi, Jeffrey Williams follows her remarks about the atomization of feminist literary theory by saying "now it does seem an age of dispersion, into micro-fields or specific 'studies.' It does seem that, in the 80s, theory was much more, if not unified, a general discourse everydoby knew the terms of." Later in the same interview, he notes that his students "might have read [Judith] Butler, but have no idea who Paul de Man is."
In another interview, William Spanos observes that his "students haven't the foggiest idea about the history of literary criticism prior to the contemporary moment. Not simply the hegemony of New Criticism, but also the emergent struggle of the early postructuralists to revolutionize that earlier tradition. They don't know who Cleanth Brooks is, they haven't read Cooper's Last of the Mohicans or Twain's Pudd'enhead Wilson or Faulkner's The Bear."
This ignorance is the result of systemic disciplinary failures, not easily rectified, not likely to change anytime soon. But they are also failures of engagement, of exchange, a breakdown in the increasingly Beckettian formulation of talking, endlessly talking. Why isn't the average graduate student familiar with Cleanth Brooks or Paul de Man? Because no one talks about them anymore. (Although, as someone who went from LSU to UCI, the idea that people don't talk about Brooks or De Man baffles me.)
So what are we to do? How are we to restart these conversations, reinvest ourselves in our disciplinary history? One way, I want to argue, a little paradoxically, is to open our discipline up, dethrone the little despots and tear down the walls between their tiny kingdoms. How best to do that? Allow outsiders in, let them remind us that we have more in common —methodologically, theoretically, and topically—than we've allowed ourselves to believe these past two decades.
As I prepared for this talk, I realized how little I knew about the reach of the phenomenon—blogging—we've come here to describe. Presupposing its importance isn't the best way to convince people who don't blog, and don't read blogs, that they have a function, much less an important one, in academic life. The possibility that academic bloggers are talking to a small, self-selected group of computer literate scholars who spend time tossing words into a void instead of with their family, exercising, or, God Forbid, even watching t.v.—is very real. On October 29th I polled my readership at Acephalous—polled it to see, first, how many of them there really were and, second, to learn a little more about them.
As of December 26th, 782 people had commented or emailed me their information. 211 were graduate students in English; another 172 of them were professors; 164 were historians, most of whom were professors; after that the disciplines begin to break down. 42 philosophers, 27 sociologists, 24 neurosciencists, 18 students of religious studies, 11 political scientists, 7 physicists, 3 classicists, and 1 self-described "freelance librarian" named Rich.
My list isn't meant to be exhaustive, merely suggestive of the intellectual community an unspectacular graduate student can create when he spends an hour or two writing for someone other than himself, his committee and the lucky eleven people who 'll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal. My ideas are out there, circulating, in way not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they'll all be able to understand. This doesn't mean, as some would have it, that I'm simplifying my ideas for a general audience.
My audience—and that of my more illustrious co-panelists—is highly educated, consisting of a group best described as "the unusually literate." The disciplinary diversity here is key: we only define ourselves as literary scholars against an interdisciplinary backdrop, one in which historians and historicists recognize and, ideally, respect the methodological and topical differences the -ian and -ist entail. It's no coincidence, then, that almost 30 percent of my readership has a background in History: as a self-identifying historicist, what I write is, I hope, of intrinsic interest to historians.
Initially, this interest took the form of interdisciplinary sniping. But over time, that sniping, what Nicole Pepperell calls "Ph.d. performance art: the methodology slam," died down. That is to say, the terrorial shadow cast upon all interdisciplinary work—including one as routinized as "historicism"—has, in this instance, passed, lighting the way to a new kind of inter- and intra-disiplinary interaction predicated on enthusiasm.
As Peter Brooks argues in Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena:
Most of us who continue to write and publish literary criticism don't particularly enjoy reading it any more—not most of it, anyway. We continue to do so (if we do) out of a sense of duty, because we continue to think it important to learn what's new in the discourse. But most of the fun is gone, since the stakes appear to be diminished, and there isn't much sense of real dialogue about our understandings of texts and issues that matter—that matter in a way on which there is some consensus.
Now, I disagree with his trajectory—importance shouldn't be bound to consensus the way he imagines it—but the general point stands: most literary scholars don't read literary scholarship for pleasure anyone, but out of a sense of professional obligation. Why? Because the majority of it isn't written with an awareness of a larger audience, aiming instead for an academic minyan, if you will.
Most write to impress, and not their audience either; no, they write to impress their committees, the tenure review boards, the functionaries of the literary-academic bureaucracy, and they do so at a speed which precludes revision. Advancement demands it. Their lives, our lives increasingly depend on the production of works we will know won't be read. "Professionalization" becomes code for the manufacture of unread and unreadable works superficially invested in a dialogue of diminishing stakes.
But I'm not here to praise the genteel critics of yore or side with those whose polemics necessitated Brooks, that's Peter, and Jonathan Culler to write their defense of difficulty.
Many people misunderstand what, exactly, one does on an academic blog—what John and I are trying to do with the Valve. Reading over the recent issue of Reconstruction devoted to academic blogging, I couldn't help but feel that many bloggers don't understand what academic blogging is either. That is to say, they're bloggers first, academics second. For example, in "Blogadamia"—just one of the many awkward neologisms used to describe the academic blogosphere, "blogosphere" being another—Craig Saper quotes one academic blogger who said
I just password-protected my blog for the period of my job search after reading [the infamous Ivan Tribble] article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, I actually got in trouble with my senior colleagues last semester for making a posting about a faculty meeting.
Now, I don't want to dictate—not that I could—what should and shouldn't count as an academic blog, but posting about faculty meetings doesn’t strike me as a uniquely academic topic, nor a uniquely academic breach of decorum.
Sure, it falls under the general rubric of "academic life," but we don't share everything about our lives with our friends and colleagues in other departments, so the idea that we ought to be able to break that decorum online seems odd to me. Internal department politics are the traditional stuff of academic the gossip, be it online or off—but do it online, and Google archives it. So for the departmental gossip who wants to ply his trade online, danger abounds. But why are we talking about gossip?
It is, in equal parts, the fault and cause of aforementioned Ivan Tribble article, "Bloggers Need Not Apply." The cause, as many have discussed, is a general technophobia. Web-only journals lack the prestige of their paper equivalents—a prestige conferred by the transubstantiation of ink to word—but this isn't the place to discuss why so many people fear electronic publication, only to note that they do.
The central objection, to my mind, would be that time spent blogging is time that could be spent thinking, writing deep thoughts about serious issues. This complaint dovetails with the common perception of blogs as diaries—or, in the more sophisticated version of that argument, blogging as a medium able to transform mere gossip into a new form of knowledge, documentation of what the aforementioned Capers calls "the social processes of knowledge production"—and to some extent, that's correct, all blogs are diaristic, do produce new knowledge.
But the best of them—or, since I'm about to include my own, the most careerist of them—are professional diaries. To draw from my own archives—the week of December 3rd through the 10th—anyone who read Acephalous could tease from my posts that I'd:
- consolidated my thought on the American reception and appropriation of English Romanticism,
- thought long and hard, for the fifth time in as many months, about how to frame my argument historically,
- considered the influence of certain exceedingly popular English characters on the American literary marketplace, and
- shored up my argument about the significance of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War to the average Progressive Era American’s daily life.
Now, the posts themselves didn't directly address those issues: instead, I
- summarized a series of close-readings on John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which I'd originally written with an eye to how they influenced the aesthetic theory of Silas Weir Mitchell—the subject of my current chapter
- discussed the concept of periodization and its institutional history in literature departments via Thomas Pynchon, Kant's theory of genius and the place of Romanticism in the long eighteenth century
- considered why an Americanist would quote unironically Sherlock Holmes as saying "There is nothing new under the sun, it has all been done before" and
- created a multiple-choice question concerning the proper name of the Spanish-American War after reading the first footnote of Amy Kaplan's The Anarchy of Empire
For the record, the other two posts for that week weren't exactly unprofessional either: the first was a discussion of the all the panels I wanted to attend at the MLA; the second, the results of a test I'd run on Turnitin.com with my Keats posts—results which made me wonder why Turnitin.com doesn't include Google in its searches, but that's the subject another talk. So to those who would say that I would've better spent the time wasted blogging working on my dissertation, my response would be:
Conceptually, I was working on my dissertation. I know we're not hired on the basis of what we know, but what we produce—but what we know, what we've considered, what we've debated, it affects the quality of what we produce. This goes without saying. To focus on one of the previous examples—the question of periodization—thinking not only about the creation of boundaries within my own area of specialization—the late 19th century—but of the act generally, led me to read Orrin Wang's "Kant's Strange Light: Romanticism and the Catachresis of Genius." Perhaps reading academic journals at 8 p.m., after having worked since on my dissertation since 8 a.m., strikes some as indulgent (insane, even); and perhaps trying to reformulate that into something a genuinely educated audience can understand, strikes some as a waste—but to me, the former indicates that I list "literary theory" among my hobbies, the latter that I'm interested in processing it Cornell-style and communicating it to those outside not only my increasingly specialized sub-discipline but my profession, so that I might better understand it myself. Consolidating what I've learned and rethinking what I've written occupy large chunks of my evening and are, I believe, essential to my intellectual and professional development.