Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Blogging Past, Present, Askew

by J J Cohen

So I realized that I never posted my Siena paper on blogging. Here it is ... though what I actually delivered was extemporized from this text and often diverged from these observations. This paper gives only a frozen snapshot of the panel, which was in fact lively and fostered an excellent conversation. I'm sorry I let such a long time pass before posting.

an audience enthralled @ NCS blogging panel (photo by Megan Nowell)

I’ve been blogging since January of 2006, several lifespans when measured in e-media years. Even back in that ancient past, though, medievalist blogs were not quite a novelty. Yet they did seem to populate a frontier. In 2010 medieval blogs are uncontroversial enough to no longer merit a dedicated session at Kalamazoo -- and to finally make the New Chaucer Society program. Although few questions about the professional status and publication value of blogs have actually been answered, what has changed profoundly is that they are now taken for granted as a part of the academic landscape.
No one makes the joke any more about how they don’t read blogs because they don’t want to hear about the wonders of people’s cats – and I must add that I always found that dismissal to be tinged with sexism. What it really seems to mean is: I don’t want to hear about domestic, private, subjective spaces; scholarship should be disembodied, devoid of affect, coolly masculine. I was inspired to begin my own blog because I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Quod She (2005), Blogenspiel (2004), HeoCwaeth (2005), and Ancrene Wiseass (2005).  These four blogs are written by women; all were at a precarious stage in their career when they began them; and all have a feminist bent. I get the feeling, in other words, that with their lack of immutable rules, with their inherent inventiveness and playfulness, many blogs tend towards a form of écriture feminine, a language that Hélène Cixous described as practiced by writers who are “uncertain, poetic … mobile, open beings.” This mode of writing values the innovative and the experiential over the known-in-advance, the replicative. Cixous continues with words that could be a blogger’s credo:
There is no invention possible, whether it be philosophical or poetic, without the presence in the inventing subject of an abundance of the other, of the diverse … our women, our monsters, our jackals, our Arabs, our fellow-creatures, our fears. (Sorties)
Of course, not every blogger will espouse such an ethos. Some will write with an eye towards boundary policing: not just to enact a traditional scholarly mode but to silence those they who challenge such a style. This criticism is usually disseminated under the guise of keeping scholarship precise, worthy, superlative – but such adjectives tend to be code for scholarship practiced in a way consonant with orthodox training; written with ample footnotes, with a love of authority, and without affect; and disseminated through scholarly networks that pass themselves off as impersonal judgment mechanisms but on closer scrutiny often turn out to be coteries of the like minded engaged in a project of mutual self-assistance. (That’s bleaker and starker than I mean it to be; the world is more complicated than this; but I want to make a point about what exactly a blog might challenge, and why some writers have been drawn to the genre).
“In the Middle” did not start auspiciously. Despite my interest in the liveliness of blogs, I instigated mine as if it were an updatable but static webpage: a single-author, professionally focused venue to provide information published conventionally elsewhere (encyclopedia entries, book reviews, short essays). Sometimes these were pre-prints; sometimes they were a bare form of open access, enabling material locked on library shelves to roam the internet.  The first post was a piece I’d done on “Race” for the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. I’m certain many more people have read the entry on the web than have glanced at its printed version, incarcerated in a volume that weighs about ten pounds and costs $160 used. Next came a piece on “Postcolonial Theory” and Erotic Animals” (probably the most popular post at ITM; I can only imagine the disappointment of those who arrive at the page and don’t find quite what they desired). A draft of the introduction to my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain followed. Something extraordinary happened at this point: the blog’s first comments.
Submitted by an anonymous reader, comment number one stated simply “I disagree.” Fifteen more followed. Several were silly, speculating what the musical based upon the book might be entitled, or:
JKW said … I was led to believe that this was a pop-up book, or at least a book with pictures. I want my money back.
J J Cohen said … What I really love about the blogosphere is how it offers the possibility of serious, high-level discourse about matetrs [sic] of great import. My *next* book will be a pop-up. Look for the Grendel that loses its arm, with real ripping action.
Other comments were serious, especially those by Karl Steel, who pushed me to think about some assertions I’d made rather baldly. Here is Karl’s debut comment:
Karl Steel said … Hate to break up this reverie by getting all serious-like, but a couple of things come to mind while reading this intro, things that you, JJC, probably deal with at some point in this book: * The radical distinction that must be made between abjected groups imagined only to inhabit the peripheries (the Scots of Owl and Night, the Welsh and Irish) and those imagined to be a ubiquitous, even necessary, pollutant within the borders of what should make sense, i.e., the Jews …
I threw myself into the discussion, and the blog’s infancy was cut remarkably short. A conversation unfolded, and it became clear to me that community-building and knowledge dissemination had to be unified endeavors.
            Four years later, the blog has added three co-authors and obtained a substantial, dedicated readership. We’ve integrated the Blogger site with a fan page on Facebook; different people interact with us at each. Most read in silence, but a substantial minority follow and share our links, add comments and note “likes.” They often email us privately. A blog could never flourish in the sequestration that might nurture a monograph; a blog is its own genre, built upon interaction and open to mutability. It must form alliances with a community of other blogs, with which it will be in constant discussion; it must adapt to new media like Facebook and Twitter, dispersing itself (and thereby strengthening itself) across an array of potential access points; it must link to traditional, embodied, face to face communities – groups and friendships that it can foster even as they nurture it, an autocatalytic loop. I think of In the Middle as forming an array or assemblage with other medieval blogs; other social media; search engines that bring unexpected readers to us; the BABEL working group; GW MEMSI; postmedieval; the New Middle Ages; a panoply of conference panels and events. These encounters cultivate the blog’s community; by being narrated on the blog in turn, ITM can help to solidify, record, give a history to what might otherwise be ephemeral and limited in audience. I’m thinking especially of the manifestos that Eileen and I compose from time to time, typically to deliver at a conference session or in reaction to some string of panels. Because conferences are now often blogged (as this one will be), panels that might attract 15 or 30 or 50 being disseminated to hundreds. I think we’ve arrived at the time when we have the conference performance, and then the blog’s narrational performance of the performance. That makes conference count for more, and traditional publication seem lethargic. In one of my favorite blog posts (a manifesto, of course), I wrote the following. Rereading it now gives me a good idea of what a blog can achieve in and for medieval studies, past and present, and especially askew (if remaining off kilter mandates constant motion):
We need our monsters, our postcolonialists, our feminists, our queers. We need to recognize kindred spirits, to engage with meticulousness and a sense of common cause the ponderings of our fellow scholar-wanderers … Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be nomadic, mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations … a restless medieval studies.
And what could be more restless than a blog, a space for conjectural and conjunctive explorations, a space that can be ephemeral, a community that is always coming into being.
            That community, I should add, skews young. I knew from informal evidence that the readership of In the Middle is strongest among graduate students and those early in their careers. This point was especially brought home for me when I recently composed an open letter to the Medieval Academy of America, urging the organization not to hold their annual meeting in Arizona because of a racist law passed in the state. The majority of the 168 signatures the letter garnered come from graduate students and junior faculty. If the MAA does not pay attention to those who signed, it is undermining its own future. Blog impact isn’t limited to social action, though. Michael Pryke, a graduate student at the University of York, wrote at Humanities Researcher:
Without reading, for example, 'In the Middle' as an undergraduate, I almost certainly would not have ended up studying the MA I currently am studying, that particular 'blog put me in touch with a community of like-minded medievalists who reinvigorated me at a time when I believed my particular (peculiar?) approach would and could never be assimilated.
I feel like I can die happy after a comment like that. But here is another great thing: because he emailed me, commented at ITM, and Facebook friended me, I had the chance to get to know Michael before I went to York for a conference last March. He introduced me to other graduate students, and we had the chance to talk (and drink) together. Such a meeting wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the openness that a blog fosters. Because the demographics for readership lean towards those early in the field, a blog has a privileged chance to create a humane space in which some of the field’s future can be imagined and begin to unfold.
            Medieval studies, like academia more generally, loves its hierarchies. I’m not much of a fan of stratification; I’ll always choose wandering over maps, grids and sedate authority. The humanities are an overburdened, underpaid, and often unpleasant field of academic endeavor. Anything a senior scholar can do to make the discipline less inhospitable, less rigid, and more congenial ought to be done. I never understand why we haze, bully, intimidate, and sometimes eat our young. Embracing this nonhierarchical nomadism also helps to make scholarship more gregarious, less solitary, less cold. And that brings me to my last point: a blog is personality-driven in a way that traditional scholarship is not. A blog therefore depends upon self-revelation that doesn’t happen in other genres. I’ve enjoyed foregrounding my domestic, familial, collegial and departmental lives as part of my blogging. I’ve used the phrase “The moment of interpretation and those carried in its wake” to describe how the most cerebral of work is not separate from life’s embodied unfolding.
Very important to me has been foregrounding my role as a parent, because in those intimate interactions with my children I always feel my values are under intense self-questioning. Familial life (and here I mean private life in all its forms, not just heterosexual married life) was in my own professional training something that had to be separate from the life of the mind, the life of the university. Such quarantine was especially enacted towards women, I realize: I have colleagues and friends who were made to feel as if they couldn’t be both a mom and a successful academic, or at least had to keep their maternal life invisible while on campus. Just as my kids are frequently at my office, running through the hallways of the English Department at GW, they have frequently appeared at In the Middle: my life as a father is an important, non-segregated, inseparable part of me. I’ve been asked how I feel about “using” my children in my blogging and the scholarship that comes from it, but that query misses the point: my kids, my friends, my colleagues – they are all my collaborators. I don’t use them; I take them seriously, and refuse to erase their contributions to endeavors that are not lonely.
            Recently I’ve noticed, though, that I blog mostly about academic subjects. I'm not sure why this should be true. Perhaps because ITM reaches a wider audience than I could have imagined in 2006, and is becoming just another medium in the media landscape. Perhaps because I've reached a point in my life where it is easier to be professional, and that's become my default persona. No doubt it's also because I had a blog-related problem with an obsessive reader, and that experience taught me the vulnerability that revealing too much that is personal engenders. But blogs are open to transformation, and I know what I want to change: to return to a greater admixture of the personal and the professional in my blog writing. And again, that is the reason why blogging askew appeals so much to me: the genre is slanted to begin with, it keeps tilting towards new futures, and no good reason exists to flatten a blog into scholarly predictability.
A restless future, indeed.


BLB said...

"I feel like I can die happy after a comment like that. "

I feel the need for a "like" button for this!

Tom Elrod said...

Great post. I'll add that I've also personally benefited from reading medievalist blogs (this one in particular) in my later undergraduate and early graduate years. They helped give me the sense that the ongoing academic conversation is happening right now, and that there are issues being intensely thought about and argued by people in real time. It's helped academia feel more vital, more alive to me. Even though there's a clear conversation continuing in, say, journal articles, the vitality is lost. Those are recordings, transcriptions of conversations, the main arguments and points already a few years old. Blogs show me the conversation as it is happening now.

Honestly, if I hadn't gotten that sense from blogs, I may have chosen not to go to graduate school, and instead pursued a career where the arguments felt more immediate. Which is not to say that old arguments are bad (I'm a medievalist, after all), but I live in the present and want to engage with the present, too. As much I enjoyed research as an undergraduate, there was definitely a sense I was speaking to older or retired or dead (usually male) scholars. Blogs helped (and still help) counteract that.

Viator said...

What a splendid summation of the many reasons I rejoice in stopping by to read, however quietly, ITM.

The thematic core of the Freshman Comp. class I'm currently teaching is "Reading and Writing in the Age of Digital Distraction and Constant Connectivity," in which we're considering the mixed blessing that Web 2.0 and the impetus to "Never Blink" (as a recent Droid phone advert I received in the mail promised [commanded?]) constitutes for us as scholars.

I confess to finding the concerns of critics like Nicholas Carr and Jaron Lanier very convincing--indeed, they only serve to confirm my own suspicions. As I explain in my syllabus:

The theme for this course grows out of my frustration with what I have begun to perceive over the past several years as my depleted attention span and growing mental restlessness, distractibility, and even anxiety. As a graduate student and lover of the printed word, I have been distressed to find myself struggling to sustain focused attention to brief online articles, let alone long journal essays or books. So much good stuff is available to me on the web, but my attempts to keep up with blogs, podcasts, email, facebook, academic journals and webzines, and my own research—often all at the same time!—mean that I often do a poor job of completing anything. And where is the connectedness I was promised? Sure, I know from tweets and status updates what my friends are doing, but does knowledge of those activities bring us any greater intimacy? My writing habits have suffered as well; all that mental static can make it so hard to focus my mind on a single topic, to meditate slowly and at length on a single problem or argument.

Already, I'm finding that my challenge in the course is to guard against coming across as too curmudgeonly, too fearful, too reactionary in the face of rapid e-change, and its (I remain convinced) demonstrable effects on the attention spans and wordsmithing abilities of my students.

Thus, this post is very timely for me, reminding me that against all the shrill unloveliness and frenetic tripe the web is capable of producing, I need to weight the richness of things like ITM. With your blessing, I'll direct my students' attention to this post sometime in the weeks to come, and see what they make of it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Viator, thank you! Your post made my day. I'm a big advocate of "slow teaching" (if I can model something on the slow food movement), and my rethought Intro Brit Lit I course is all about paying attention to small detail, working through small amounts of text with enormous concentration to tell larger stories, inculcating some of the skills (and joys) that FB, Twitter, email, texting (all of which I myself do) can deprive us of when there isn't a counterbalance.

Please let your students know they are welcome to comment here!

Eileen Joy said...

A beautiful essay, and thanks for sharing it. Another important point, which I made at the actual session in Siena, is that weblogs can also foster actual *careers* as this one did for mine. This is no over-statement. We often talk about the ways in which weblogs can build communities, often spoken of in intellectual but also personal terms, as a kind of hybrid space [although why we shouldn't think of the intellectual and personal inhabiting and "occupying" each other all the time, I don't know--there is no real line between them, no matter how many people say there is or ought to be], one in which work, always partially-formed and in flux, can be thought out loud in good company, but not necessarily a space for *professional* legitimation. I discovered this weblog at a point in my career when I did not think I had a so-called "good" career and I was fearful that I would not be able to publish the sort of work I desired to publish, and I was thinking seriously [no joke] of leaving the field. I was also at a very low point in my so-called "personal" life, having just separated from my partner of, at that time, 14 years, and was also struggling with a teenage daughter who was spinning wildly out of control and needed about 1,000 percent of an attention span I did not have at the time. Sitting in a coffee shop in Cambridge [UK], when I should have been in the stack at the CUL, this weblog gave me a safe and comforting but also intellectually stimulating place within which I felt, as odd as it sounds, "at home." So when I say "this weblog" saved my life, and career, I really mean it. On a slightly less sentimental level, this weblog also helped me to advance the cause of the BABEL Working Group--I do not think--no, I know--we would not exist the way we do today, and with a journal, even, without this weblog and its "community" of voluble, less voluble, and silent, but always palpably *felt*, readership. And I am so grateful for that. Which is also to say: I think weblogs can not only save a career, maybe even initiate one [i.e. M. Pryke's, Tom Elrod's etc.], they can also help to change a field.

Some will say: what ridiculous hyperbole. Maybe. But I don't think so.