There’s been a flurry of discussion in the speculative realism corner of the blogosphere over the last week about the nature of blogging as an academic pursuit. There are more posts than I can link or summarize (a point to which I’ll return), but for now, you can read Adam Robbert, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, and Graham Harman on the subject.
The themes of these posts are familiar and accurate. They cover the insufferable slowness and obscurity of academic publication and the questionable qualityÂ and usefulness of traditional peer review, along with the undeniable fact that blog posts, articles, and books are differentÂ forms that exist in complement rather than in competition with one another. And perhaps most importantly, both blogs and electronic publishing more generally is changing the ecology of writing and its dissemination. Burying one’s head in the sand is not an option.
This is all well and good, but in reading the posts linked above, I was most struck by this comment from Graham: “In general, I would tend to agree with those who claim that the blogosphere is not yet the right place for fully worked-out philosophical arguments.” What if we worked on this problem instead?
Blogs are a received digital format that’s not necessarily well-suited to the rapid exchange of complex intellectual ideas (Graham comments on this very challenge). They are the accidents of a handful of simple software infrastructures built to allow individuals to update webpages in a diary-like format, but one with no logical end.
Blogs don’t aggregate conversation well. Just scan my Speculative Realism Aggregator on any given day, and you’ll find a great many posts linking back to other posts, pointing to other philosophers’ opinions on or responses to a current topic. It’s overwhelming.
And blog posts tend to get lost in the obscurity of the past, even the recent past, thanks to the way their structure privileges recentness. Just try to find an old post on most blogs. Graham is right to observe that Levi has “pioneered the blog mini-treatise in philosophy” with specimens like this one. But in a week or a month or a year, how easy will it be to refer back to that treatise? I often miss important philosophical moments on blogs because they correspond with weeks when I happen to be unavailable. Even my aggregator doesn’t save anything, but simply takes the most recent 50 posts from the several dozen blogs I rather arbitrarily chose to call the speculative realism blogosphere.
Levi often (and understandably) rejoins readers, commenters, or other bloggers who ask basic questions or raise objections he has long since answered, often in incredible detail. But in fairness, how would they know? As a form, the blog burns its own pages. This is how the web works in general, in fact. Google’s search results strongly privilege recent pages, even when recentness isn’t the best criterion. And Twitter doesn’t even bother displaying tweets older than a couple weeks.
Blogs aren’t saviors, by any means. There just the most convenient way to publish words online.
Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining them to “figure out what they are about in this new environment.” But the same is true for blogs and other formsÂ of digital writing as well. We’re no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals.
For a while now, I’ve been advancing the philosophical construction of artifacts, a practice I’ve given the name carpentry. Taking up that philosophical hobby horse, I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher’s native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?
I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work. But as I recently argued, a real digital humanism isn’t one that’s digital, but one that’s concerned with the present and the future. A part of that concern involves considering the way we want to interact with one another and the world as scholars, and to intervene in that process by making it happen. Such a question is far more interesting and productive than debating the relative merits of blogs or online journals, acts that amount to celebrations of how little has really changed.