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Monday, 01 January 2007

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» Unusual Literacies: Scott Eric Kaufmans MLA Talk Online from Roughtheory.org
For those who participated in - or at least followed - Scott Eric Kaufmans preparations for his MLA presentation, just a note that Scott has now posted his talk to Acephalous. Aside from posting the talk itself, Scott also provides a lovely int... [Read More]

» Talking, Endlessly Talking; or, Something I Presented Somewhere before Many People from The Valve
(xposted from Acephalous. Also, N. Pepperell weighed in before the post appeared in my RSS reader. Talk about efficiency.) Below youll find in situ the corpse of my lively talk. As will quickly become apparent, the word talk i... [Read More]

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Jesse

Rethinking and processing are indeed an important part of the academic's job, and a blog is a great forum for this kind of work. More importantly, this task - rearticulation - is one of the most important lost arts of academia these days. You touch on this problem a few times in this post, though you never attack it directly: in specialized academia, there's such a dependence upon a body of theorists and terminology, both popular and arcane, that it's becoming profoundly inaccessible, and therefore more and more fragmented, and perhaps even irrelevant.

It's good to ask why students these days haven't read de Man, or why they don't recognize Cleanth Brooks. Then again, it's also relevant to ask: why should they need to know names like de Man, or Butler, or Wimsatt and Beardsley, in order to join the discourse? Because of the phenomenon you're talking about... the mass-production of critical literature in service of requirements and credentials... our critical vocabulary now consists almost entirely of names and jargon. That's what separates academia from any relevant political or ideological community.

And blogging might be a solution to this. It's not subject exclusively to institutional criteria, and it's not restricted to tiny audiences and obscure publications. It's a place where we can reformulate the ideas of the important theorists, but where, more importantly, we can start working with IDEAS again, rather than just names and -isms.

Karl Steel

Jesse, I'm unconvinced there was ever a time when academia was "accessible" to hoi polloi, when academia wasn't thought pointlessly recondite by same, when 'ordinary speech' was the predominate form of academic discourse. Let's take two examples (how many do I need?).

1: Early 14th-century discussions of free will, even reproduced, as they are now, in relatively cheap editions printed in regular (that is, non-specialized) typefaces, in (more or less) the vernacular, and (generally) with well-considered indexes--this work, and other late medieval academic discussion (let alone the discussion of Christian and quasi-Christian and pre-Christian neoplatonism: Plotinus certainly wasn't writing columns for the Times) still doesn't make much sense to me. If it doesn't speak easily to a medievalist, it certainly isn't exactly aiming to effect a rapprochement between the Ivory Tower and "any relevant [authentic?--ed.] political or ideological community." But this is the typical academic discussion of the period: sort of muddles your dystopian narrative, since the present day sins appear with equal vigor in the past. If you want engagement with a political community, I suppose you could look to political handbooks like the Secretum Secretorum: but, really, that kind of material is really the medieval equivalent of Dr. Phil: I hardly think it's what you want us to emulate.

2: There's also Ball of Fire. Can we suggest that the academics in this film, dating to (let's say) the excellent past that present-day academics have abandoned, are representative? If so, they're nerdy; unappreciated; arcane (also think of the early Kinsey in the movie Kinsey). We don't want to go back to that. (suggested narcissist article: changing perception of academics. When did academics go from being nerdy to being too avant garde? Socrates? Abalard? Wyclif?)

3. Bonus: Perhaps we're already there? Some academics do participate in public fora. Zizek and Negri and Singer have published editorials in the NY Times, right?, and is it my imagination, or isn't the French mass media (including television) well-known forgiving a venue to people like Foucault, Deleuze, and, er, so forth (that is, academics, not dead people)?

All this is a long way of saying: I agree that engagement with the non-academic public is desirable, especially if we believe our scholarship is doing political or ethical work, but we should aim for this engagement without an eye to the past, whatever that is, since, to my mind, nostalgia's an essentially conservative mode of thought.

Rich Puchalsky

Since the discussion here has turned to "hoi polloi", it might be helpful to discuss who is meant by that in this context. If I haven't just mis-subtracted the numbers, Scott's 782 identified readers include 103 in the "other" category -- 13%. I suspect that a good number of these are a sort of new class or class fragment of non-academic, non-legal symbolic analysts.

Of course I'm predisposed to this interpretation, being the free-lance librarian mentioned. But, in order to make this about more than just myself, I suspect that people like John Emerson, Bill Benzon, and Ray Davis might be considered. (No insult is intended to these people, if they would find this to be insulting -- I know that Bill Benzon publishes in academic journals, and so do John and Ray for all I know, but I don't think that any of them currently work as academics or consider themselves to primarily be academics; I'm not sure about Dan Green.) The archetype is that of the person working currently in something computer-related who has a humanities background, possibly a Ph.D. I'm an outlier since I have no humanities background. The group that I've mentioned is, of course, itself an outlier, as it is composed of the most locally visible people, generally those with their own blogs. There are also autodidacts; people like Noah Cicero.

In general, I think that this type of educational / occupational displacement is getting more common, and people like this form a significant part of the audience of more or less intellectual blogs. It's probably an ideal audience for the academic who wants his or her work to be better read; a non-captive audience who is actually interested, has the basic tools needed for understanding, yet who doesn't generally keep up with the journals. (Again, no disrespect intended to Bill, etc. above, many of whom do seem to still read journals in their (prior?) fields.)

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I don't think that academic blogs, in which academics write about their work, really do reach hoi polloi as that phrase is generally used, to mean lower-class, working-class, or perhaps the kind of middle-class audience stereotyped as "middlebrow". They reach non-academics, and academics outside the writer's field, but the First World, or at least the U.S., has what I think is a growing class of symbolic analysts who have a strange voluntarist, half-producer, half-consumer relationship to intellectual production.

Rich Puchalsky

I forgot to mention the "Luther Blissett" who comments in these environs, who last I'd heard said that he or she was leaving academia after dissertation (which would be academia's loss). LB is pretty clearly going to be a long-term ideal academic blog reader, despite having who knows what in their occupational check box.

eb

It's not clear to me that I would have applied to grad school had academic blogging been widely available at the time, or if, having applied, I'd have gone for anything beyond a terminal MA. I probably will fall into that group of nonacademic blog readers reading academic blogs.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jesse:

Then again, it's also relevant to ask: why should they need to know names like de Man, or Butler, or Wimsatt and Beardsley, in order to join the discourse?

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating—despite not being a science, or even scientistic, literary studies has so rich a critical past that anyone unfamiliar with it is bound to relive it somehow. It may be, as per Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, that queer theorists in the '80s "discover" the immanent homosexuality Fiedler described in detail in the '50s. There's nothing wrong with that—in fact, I don't buy into the model of scholarly progress I suggest—but we ought to be careful not to claim as our own the insights of others. Not for reasons of intellectual honesty, mind you, but because it demonstrates a commitment to the discipline as a discipline. Sure, physicists don't read Newton anymore, but they don't need to in order to understand their work. The same can't be said of something with the institutional history of English departments.

Karl:

I'm unconvinced there was ever a time when academia was "accessible" to hoi polloi, when academia wasn't thought pointlessly recondite by same, when 'ordinary speech' was the predominate form of academic discourse.

I don’t want everyone to think I'm being belligerent today, but I have to disagree. In the late 1890s, before boundaries had been formed and canons began codifying, when the literate public could understand academic discourse. I've told this anecdote before, but William James' course on Spencer migrated from department to department—biology to philosophy to medicine to psychology to sociology—despite remaining, for the most part, the same introduction to Spencerian thought it'd always been. Now, I know the denizens of Harvard ain't the hoi polloi, but they can communicate in a "common" if not "ordinary" tongue.

Also, nice to meet you. Wish we'd had more of a chance to talk at the MLA. As you might imagine, things were a wee hectic.

Rich:

I don't think that academic blogs, in which academics write about their work, really do reach hoi polloi as that phrase is generally used, to mean lower-class, working-class, or perhaps the kind of middle-class audience stereotyped as "middlebrow". They reach non-academics, and academics outside the writer's field, but the First World, or at least the U.S., has what I think is a growing class of symbolic analysts who have a strange voluntarist, half-producer, half-consumer relationship to intellectual production.

I agree with the first half—although I think you may underestimate the importance of access, or the lack thereof, in many communities, and what may happen when it increases—but for now, I consider the current crop of volunteers victory enough. More on this later, however, as I've a long-winded, half-composed post on the topic to finish.

New Kid on the Hallway

Thanks for sharing this. I think you're absolutely right that there's a difference between being an academic who blogs, and being an academic blogger. What you do here and especially at The Valve is very different from what I do, generally. (I realize there's lots more going on in your talk, but that's what I wanted to comment on.)

(Sidenote: that "Blogademia" article really annoys me because there are some fundamental errors in its understanding of just the mechanics of blogs. The author makes a point about my blog based on an incorrect understanding of my URL, misrepresents The Little Professor's blog by linking its title with another's, and assumes that a former blogger is unemployed because s/he stopped blogging, when I happen to know that s/he's happily tenured at an R1 university. So those things make me less inclined to buy the article's arguments overall.)

New Kid on the Hallway

Ooops, there should be no apostrophe in "another's" - sorry!

Adam Kotsko

You spend an inordinate amount of time defending your decision to use a conversational tone, and you also seem to gratuitously insult everyone who chose not to do so (i.e., according to you, virtually everyone else at the MLA). I think that showing more respect for the fact of oral delivery would generally be good at conferences -- but certainly the hard-to-follow conference presentation has its place. We are academics, right? Why be self-hating about it?

Anthony Paul Smith

I'm a total hater. Whenever people talk about this conversational tone and a general sense of commonsensical gee-shucks kind of delivery I think, "If they had their way we'd never have Husserl's Cartesian Meditations!" Anyone who has every read through the book should recognize how difficult of a read it is, to think that, in a slighter different form, these were a serious of talks is simply mind blowing. The academics who attended must not have been too turned off as the French translation was demanded immediately and inaugurated the phenomenological tradition in France. Of course, I don’t think you or I are on the level of Husserl, but I’d hate to create a mediocre environment where someone like Husserl would be discouraged from giving such a talk. And besides, there should be some punishment for going to conferences for the free drunken orgies.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Reading over my post, I realize that my point may not have been clear:

The first two panels I attended were also conversational in tone, keyed to oral delivery, whereas the "talk" I'd arrived with most certainly wasn't. (I'll write about those panels shortly, as I've a paralyzing over-log of posts to write.)

That said, I don't believe difficult-to-follow presentations have a place. If they're difficult for the sake of being difficult, they're performance; if they're difficult because they're articles read aloud, they're profoundly disrespectful of their audience; if they're difficult because they address subtle topics but the speaker recognizes the genre and medium and does his/her best, I don't mind. Some topics will be more difficult to discuss than others; but all topics, when read aloud from a text designed to be read silently, become difficult.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Anthony:

Whenever people talk about this conversational tone and a general sense of commonsensical gee-shucks kind of delivery I think, "If they had their way we'd never have Husserl's Cartesian Meditations!" Anyone who has every read through the book should recognize how difficult of a read it is, to think that, in a slighter different form, these were a serious of talks is simply mind blowing.

This strikes me as another question of genre, this time of different types of talks. Husserl's Cartesian Meditations were not, I take it, 15 minute presentations, but lectures—part of a lecture series, no doubt, that he knew would one day be collected in book form. That said, one of the reasons some of the attendees demanded an immediate translation was because they thought "Holy shit! That sounded smart! Too bad I can't remember any of its subtle, hairpin turns! Would that there were a printed text before me!"

Adam Kotsko

I think I understand where the conflict is coming from here. You MLAites apparently only get 15 minutes -- at the AAR, we are normally allotted 20.

Karl Steel

First off, I should say that I was unfair to Jesse. I objected to the nostalgia of his post, and that--I'd like to say--sent my logic off the rails.

Second (off?), thanks Rich for the considered response. I'm not sure what I meant by hoi polloi except as a stand in for 'not Ivory Tower,' the placeholder for "authentic" in too many deplorable discourses. I meant it sarcastically, in other words: not cute on my part.

Third, SEK, yes, if it hadn't been the MLA, I wouldn't have been able to introduce myself; but as it was the MLA, neither of us had the time to talk, at least not this time round. More to say later, I hope, on your nice James anecdote and its relationship to scholasticism and its relationship to the specialized, hermetic discourses of present-day academia.

I still wonder about the conjunction of the 'nerdy' academic and the 'avant garde' academic...archeology anyone?

Anthony Paul Smith

That's probably right, but I still don't see the harm in difficult papers for conferences with other specialists.

Jesse

Thanks for the comments on my post; Karl, I take your criticism seriously... though I'm not 100% convinced that nostalgia for a progressive time is esentially conservative, I'm happy to entertain the observation that the current period in history doesn't necessarily deserve an admonishment. I didn't mean to present a dystopian vision for academia, because I know that blogging is just one of a million recent and not-so-recent opportunities for cross-(cultural, disciplinary, whatever) communication. If I harbor any objection, it probably has something to do with specialization of disciplines at the expense of a common forum for discourse, and it's a criticism that's still in a pretty unformed state.

Ray Davis

APS & AK, difficulty is good, but difficulty differs from flatfooted shoelacetangled pratfalls into the punchbowl. A challenging talk takes a different form from a challenging paper, a challenging novel, a challenging poem, a challenging group improvisation. You can reuse some riffs, some ideas -- when I've lectured, I've ended up writing something (but then my writing style is heavily swayed by the oral) -- but there's incongruency from overall structures to passing details. It seems appropriate that someone involved in rhetorical or literary studies stay aware of which form they're working in, especially if they intend to fuck shit up.

Rich, I'm not insulted at all (although, as a data point, I probably count more as an autodidact than as someone with "a humanities background, possibly a Ph.D."). Thanks for raising the question.

Kyler Kuehn

I'm interested in hearing more of your (and your audience's) thoughts on how technophobia adversely affects perceptions of academic bloggers in particular and online publication in general. I imagine that such feelings are quite discipline-dependent. In the sciences, for example, many prestigious journals are moving toward online publication--exclusively so, in some instances. And a recently-developed (within the last decade or so) tool that has become nearly indispensable for many scientists is the online archive, where one can post one's scholarly work and view the work of others, whether or not that work will eventually end up in an official peer-reviewed journal. That's not to say there are no Luddites working in the sciences. But I do think that the differences between the respective professional cultures reflect the fact that technology is often more integrated into the day-to-day academic life of scientists than of scholars in the humanities.

On a related note, many scientific collaborations are attempting much more "Education and Public Outreach" of late. Things like planetaria or public visitor nights at the local observatory work to communicate much of the excitement (if not the mind-numbing, back-breaking labor) that is a part of science. And participation in such activities are supposedly taken into account for tenure review or other career advancement. So the scientific community (on paper at least) values those who are seeking to communicate their findings to the general public. Are there efforts with analogous goals undertaken in the humanities? Book fairs or poetry readings come to mind, but I don't think such a format is easily translated across all disciplines. Is this, then, one of the roles that you envision for academic blogging?

P.S. Another difference between the professional cultures that struck me recently: No one ever "reads a paper" at a physics conference. Even if the presentation is derived from results that are published in a journal, the talk is always presented via graphs, tables, and plots (and occasionally text) in powerpoint or other visual format. The presenter's job is then to narrate alongside the visual presentation to make sure that the audience comprehends how slide 11 follows from slide 10.

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