On The Pros And Cons Of Blogging As A Preferred Medium For Philosophy

On The Pros And Cons Of Blogging As A Preferred Medium For Philosophy July 29, 2009

Graham Harman has an excellent (and lightning quickly delivered) reply up in response to my remarks earlier on the profession of philosophy looking into blogging as a preferred medium for more efficient and multi-vocal exchange.  I’m quite grateful and want to address a few of his key observations and expand on some of my own ideas I’ve mulled for a while but not presented in public before:

It’s not always good to be subjected to immediate feedback. This holds for positive and neutral feedback as much as for negative feedback. During the original incarnation of this blog, I was foolishly committing myself to answering every question that came in. Simply put, no one has enough time to do that, at least not with the number of questions I was getting. One virtue of the slower pace of traditional intellectual life is the time to reflect, to pick one’s moments to respond, to choose an appropriate pace for dialogue. And that’s why I have given no serious reconsideration to re-opening comments on this blog.

I quite understand this.  Not everyone would need to reply in the flurry of every single debate.  Often one can read without jumping in or take or bracket a criticism provisionally with hopes to mull it over and return another time.  But also for someone like me, interactive thinking is where most of my best mulling happens, rather than alone.  Most of my breakthroughs in thinking came out of my mouth or my fingertips within seconds after they were in my head and they weren’t even in my head before I felt challenged by someone else.

To your other concerns in this paragraph and the next—I have long speculated that what would be most ideal would be a philosophy-worldwide, academic messageboard, readable by all but accepting posts only from philosophy professors and philosophy PhDs.  Only philosophy departments could grant and maintain access for professors and their unemployed PhDs.  Maybe provisions would be made for graduate students under sponsorship of departments.  The discussions would be open to the whole internet to read and to discuss on external blogs and individual philosophers could blog in conjunction with the discussions on this central board but the board itself would be a zone that demanded the highest standards of academic seriousness and qualification.  Alternate to a centralized message board (or in conjunction with it) there could be some sort of networking of blogs with similar controls on academic credentials and quality, across which networks the debates take place.  And, ideally, in either message boards or blogs or both, integrity would be guaranteed by departments’ and individuals’ very non-anonymous reputations at stake.  Which would avoid problems like this:

Second, there was my quick realization after just a few weeks in this space that much critical dialogue is not at all open, free interchange. Much of it is just rubbish– procrastinators lurking around the fringes of conversations listening for gaffes or for chances to barge in and make a rude remark, often concealed behind a false identity, that sort of thing.

What I think, essentially, is that the philosophy community does not need to join the regular blog-world but remodel journals along blog and message board lines.

More concretely, Camels With Hammers sees much good in the notion of books circulating along with critical commentary on them by readers, whereas now we get no such comments with the book at all. But I don’t see why it’s an all-or-nothing choice. The classic example usually given of an author willing to publish criticisms of books along with the books themselves is Descartes, who included and answered critical objections to the Meditations along with the book. Admirable, and quite interesting for the reader.

However, I strongly doubt that Descartes would have included an open blog comment thread along with the Meditations. The objections he printed were from a fairly elite crew of worthy critics. Personally, I’d be happy to publish objections to one of my books along with the book, but only if the critic were staking as much as I were on the exchange, and was actually taking a stand rather than just playing clever devil’s advocate games.

Agreed completely.  But I have some hesitations about this:

One other good feature of the current publishing system, a system I otherwise generally condemn, is that the slow pace and high hurdles of the process forced people to articulate their intellectual life into significant chunks: “OK, I guess this book is Badiou’s statement of his position as of mid-decade. How has it changed from 4 years ago?” But if everything dissolves instead into a flow of real-time internet discussion, then the difference between one’s significant pieces of intellectual work and one’s fleeting remarks on the topic of the moment starts to get a bit lost.

I’ve often wondered that when posting blog entries here… Am I held to my words here as much as I am when putting them in print? Probably most of us would say no, this is a more informal medium. If you put something in print and then feel the need to retract it later, it’s an arduous mental process and may even feel embarrassing. But we all say things casually in conversation, or on blogs, that we probably feel are more modifiable than words set down in cold print on paper.

One of the things that I have started to wrestle with is the illusion of the great thinker or the settled position.  I wonder if our present view of writing and publishing encourages us too much to harden positions.  In free-flowing conversations and on blogs we are ready to regularly shift gears when we realize that we spoke or wrote too quickly.  And we are open to spurting out things we hadn’t even thought before and which might not fit neatly with the rest of what we think we are committed to.
I wonder if having committed to certain propositions in print currently hardens people sometimes in those positions they have taken.  I wonder if instead of self-editing for our own appearances of consistency if a little more free-flowing contradictions right out there in public with subsequent realizations of those tensions and further attempts to work them out might not be good for us.  I wonder if it might help to shatter our own illusions about ourselves that our thoughts really fit together in neat systems in the sky.  I think this is why I always find myself twice as alert during a question and answer section after a paper than during the paper.  I want to hear the thinker outside of the carefully crafted walls of his argument to see if he can avoid conceding all the contradictions that it seems to keep out.  I want to catch people talking freely and seeing if their theoretical constructs actually influence their practical thinking, their assumptions, their off-the-cuff judgments.  I like the idea of exploding the illusion that our carefully crafted pieces give of the neatness of our thinking.  I like seeing the imprecision and the process of frequent mind-changing.  I like the idea of risking embarrassment in exchange for faster correction and open doors to serendipity.

It seems more honest to me and it seems to me like the process of continual sharpening of ourselves and each other, constantly, weekly (or more often) in writing is worth the mistakes along the way and the constant exposure of one’s limitations.  The art of being a philosopher would look more like being a baseball player, where people see you make  out 7 tries out of 10 but nonetheless are amazed when you still nonetheless keep churning out the 3 good hits every ten at bats, because they see how hard even that is to do.

When you talk about the ability to see a particular thinker at a particular moment with a particular book  written at a particular time, I am reminded of a similar argument related to Facebook, whose source I cannot remember.  The author of the piece was lamenting that with Facebook people’s lives do not fall into relatively distinct and neat chapters the way they used to.  The case was made that previously (at least in our modern, nomadic lives) you had different phases in different places and they marked distinct chapters, whereas the kids today never have to lose their old friends but they keep them all through Facebook and they keep a continual narrative which prevents there ever being points of genuine rupture in one’s life according to which to separate its stages.

But at the same time, Facebook enables a micro-narrative-construction on a daily basis that creates a form of journaling that lets you track all the small moments of progress and allows a wider range of people from more dimensions in your life to participate in your daily narrative writing.  It’s like journaling with feedback from your past and from people from various spheres of your life.

I think there is something more honest and organic about such a process of working out your narrative of yourself and of your ideas by doing it daily, in writing, and in community.  Of course, there needs to be space left for privacy and you’re right that the daily rhythm should be punctuated with key reference points in longer form.  Abolishing the book is too extreme and unnecessary a suggestion since it needlessly would remove an alternative way to communicate with its own benefits.  But I do think that books might be more interesting as culmination points whose thought process has been developing on record in the time leading up and which then immediately picks up and starts evolving again after the book drops.

This model of the philosophical process would show it as the continuum and process which it really is and never give the illusion of stasis or neat insulation within the fortress of an official theory.

As I’ve typed this out Nietzsche’s various remarks about how the thinker does not regret his mistakes as long as he learns from them and I anticipate that if Professor Harman feels inclined to reply again to me that I will indeed learn from such an exchange some more about where I have been wrong and I must admit the prospect strikes me as rather exhilarating.

See further discussion of this topic here.

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