Knowledge Ecology has written a post following up on my post, Graham’s, and Tim’s. In his post, Tim asks an interesting question:

This nice post on Knowledge Ecology distinguishes well between blogging and publishing as separate distinct environments. Yes.

But then we do have to ask, why the threat? Why the need to put blogging down?

First, for me there’s no way that blogging can replace academic publications. There are things that I can do in an academic publication that I just can’t do on a blog. The Democracy of Objects for example, develops a sustained argument over about three hundred pages. It went through a substantial editing process, is well referenced, and develops its argument in a concentrated manner. Blogs work very differently. On the one hand, blog posts are far shorter and are more scattered. Where a book or an article develops a sustained argument or analysis of concepts, the arguments of a blog shift from day to day, hour to hour, bouncing around all over the place. On the other hand, published work is a statement of an author’s, theorist’s, or thinker’s position up to that point, whereas blog posts are far more experimental and probing. Clearly there can be no hard and fast distinction here, but I tend to think of my work here as a sort of “working through” where I am developing concepts and lines of argument and submitting them to public critique and discussion, whereas I think of my published work as something like “reports” on the claims that I’m willing to stand by and that have been polished as a result of this dialogical process.

read on!

Returning to media ecology and Tim’s question of why academic blogging might be threatening, I think it’s worthwhile to remember that texts aren’t simply about something, they are something. Why is this point important? Because if texts are entities in their own right– and I very much look forward to Eileen Joy’s talk on this issue –then they are susceptible to ecological analysis in terms of the role they play in structuring dynamics of power. By this, I mean that we can analyze the relations they enter into with other entities and how these relations organize bodies in particular social relations.

All of this is rather abstract, so what ecological relations is it that I have in mind? In this context I am thinking primarily about how texts circulate. If we think about traditional academic models, texts circulate primarily through academic journals, presses, and professional conferences. If we’re thinking ecologically about these modes of circulation, we will notice that 1) the editors of journals, presses, and the organizers of conferences enjoy, in this environment, a tremendous amount of power in defining topics, styles of thought, what counts as legitimate thought, the content of disciplines, etc., 2) in structuring access between participants (one largely has to go through the journal and press environments to access other thinkers), and 3) defining who gets to participate. This third issue largely has to do with economics. Most people cannot afford subscriptions to academic journals, so the only route to access tends to be through university libraries. Likewise, academic texts are often expensive and rare or difficult to obtain, generating a similar structure of exclusion and isolation.

The materiality of academic print culture (not it’s content) thus organizes social relations in a particular way. We get the (re)production of particular types of communities and in-group/out-groups based on structures of access that have emerged or organized around this specific materiality and the constraints (circulatory) that organize it. And here it’s above all important to note that the success of a theoretical position does not necessarily have to do– in academic print culture –with the truth of its positions or the persuasiveness of its arguments, but with the way in which the power-structures underlying print are organized and the decisions that gate-keepers make in terms of what to publish or not publish. These gate-keepers decide what does and doesn’t circulate. Given that every culture or community faces the question of re-production or how to maintain itself across time, and given that this requires social mechanisms (such as university programs, journals, conferences, etc) that mold minds in such a way as to maintain particular forms of research, these gate-keepers enjoy a tremendous amount of power in determining how forms of thought are reproduced and replicated in academia.

It is in this connection, I think, that academic blogging becomes very threatening. As a material medium (I’m not talking about content or representation here… that can’t be emphasized enough), academic blogging challenges traditional modes of knowledge-distribution and reproduction. I think this worry, vaguely sensed, is at the heart of the disparaging attitude towards blogging that Tim notes. With academic blogging the control of topics, trends, and legitimate styles of thought no longer resides solely with the editors of journals, presses, and the organizers of conferences. Where before we were able to determine the lay of the land by simply looking at the major professional journals and could triangulate what interventions to make based on what’s being published and who decides what’s being published, now we find that it’s possible that there are bubbling dialogues taking place all over the place, below the radar, that have already dated our work and rendered it irrelevant.

A number of things change within this new media ecology. First, print journals, presses, and conferences are no longer able to completely control topics and styles of thought, because other topics and styles of thought emerge elsewhere outside of these mediums. For the print journals this is particularly vexing due to issues of time. Journal publication occurs, by and large, very slowly. For example, I have an article set to come out with Pre/Text that’s been in process for two or three years now. Blog time, by contrast, occurs fast and furious. Traditional modes of knowledge-production simply can’t keep up. This tends to create an academic super-ego where one begins to feel as if there’s a whole other domain of publications they must keep up with to keep one’s work timely and relevant.

Second, academic blogging tends to unsettle academic disciplinary boundaries. Philosophers will recall Heidegger’s epigraph to Being and Time, where Plato is quoted as saying something like “We used to think we understood what is meant by Being, but now we’re not so certain.” Something similar happens in the blogosphere: We used to think we understood what was meant by “philosophy”, but now we’re not so sure. This lack of certainty is directly related to the materiality of how blogs circulate. Journals are able to maintain strict disciplinary boundaries and tend only to be read by specialists in a particular field. With blogging it is different. The philosopher writes a blog post and suddenly the artist, comedian, ethnographer, geographer, mathematician, businessperson, activist, housewife, linguist, rhetorician, computer programmer, etc., speaks up. You are no longer addressed to others that have undergone the same process of academic subjectivization as you, but now are forced to encounter a variety of different forms of thought, knowledge-production, and life. This significantly diminishes the narcissistic pretensions that any and every discipline harbors with respect to itself. Boundaries are blurred and something new tends to emerge.

Third, blogging tends to undermine academic hierarchy. Suddenly your status as an associate or full professor with a boatload of publications doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference in your discussions with others. If you don’t have much that’s of interest or relevant to say, you’re filtered out of the discussion. The “lowly” grad student suddenly becomes a rock star, taken very seriously, getting publishing deals, and completely undermining an established academic’s position (and here is one reason that those who call for the grad student not to be “picked on” is completely ridiculous in this medium: lack of hierarchy is lack of hierarchy), whereas the position of the established academic isn’t taken seriously at all. Suddenly someone outside of academia like a computer programmer, activist, or novelist can become a key player in defining topics. If you don’t say it, if you don’t participate (in this medium), it might as well not even exist. You’re outside the discussion and process. This, I think, is a very bitter pill for some to swallow. It’s hard discovering that perhaps your position at Duke doesn’t matter all that much in these discussions, that you aren’t the gatekeeper you once were, and that now suddenly you no longer enjoy the authority you once did with respect to graduate students or that you have to endure the barbs of cruel trolls. A whole new form of connectivity and knowledge-production here emerges.

What I’ve tried to outline here is what an object-oriented analysis of the blogosphere and text might look like. I’ve focused on the materiality of texts, their sheer being as objects, their modes of connectivity, how they structure relational fields or networks, and the different results we get based on different modes of connectivity. Lurking in the background here, of course, is also fossil fuels for all of this is currently sustained on the basis of the oil and coal which currently produce the majority of the electricity necessary for these forms of social relation. I have set aside issues of content, meaning, or representation. The point is not that one mode of knowledge-production is better than the other, but that these different ecologies embody different forms of power and social relation. Above all, I am not trying to wax utopian about the blogosphere. Each field of relations generates its own problems and shortcomings. These need to be analyzed and understood. However, where the gate-keepers are concerned, we ought, I believe, wonder what made them gatekeepers and be cognizant of the systems of relations, the ecology, that allowed them to occupy these positions within social circuits. I am especially critical of any press or journal that doesn’t make its work open access. But I’ll save all that for another day.