I’m going to take a tour over the next month or so of some specific instances of the intractable dilemmas facing academics at the moment, challenges to which I see no ready or straightforward solution. All of these problems, as I see them, confound some of the conventional defenses of academic institutions, but also are poorly addressed or even aggravated by many of the conventional, especially political or partisan, critiques of the academy.
Scott McLemee has a nice column this week in which he talks about how blogging or online writing among academics may be creating new and unexpected communities among scholars, conversations that cut across or even ignore specialization and disciplinarity without any of the creaky, elaborate institutionally deliberate mechanisms sometimes used to encourage similarly collaborative efforts. The more formal the effort to encourage interdisciplinarity, the more that it is easily suborned to the institutional dynamics that it seeks to escape. Sooner or later, the pressure to formalize, standardize, and control such projects becomes irresistable.
The serendipity of communication and discussion between online writers not only casually, informally connects academics with different intellectual traditions and methodologies, but bridges gaps between academic and non-academic thinkers that otherwise can seem almost impossible to navigate otherwise. Try as a matter of deliberate policy to get academics and non-academics together, and you’ll get something about as spontaneous, relaxed and productive as a row of 13-year old boys at the high school dance trying to screw up their courage to ask someone to dance with them.
In contrast, there are all sorts of examples of academics and non-academics conversing busily, productively, creatively to be found at various weblogs, but the most powerful example I encounter in my working life isn’t so much at or through a single weblog as it is around an entire field of research.
Formal study of what the economist Edward Castronova has called “synthetic worlds”, what others have called virtual worlds or massively-multiplayer games, is something that I fell into largely by accident. I’ve been an interested consumer of online worlds (both game-oriented and otherwise) and some of their pre-online precursors, for my entire life. I felt comfortable identifying myself as more than a consumer, as an intellectual concerned with inquiry in this area, partly because I developed a secondary expertise in popular culture after arriving at Swarthmore and wrote about children’s television, but also partly because of a growing interest in networks, emergent systems, and complexity theory that came from other experiences.
I’ve been increasingly enthralled by both academics and non-academics working on this general topic not just because of the subject matter, but because on many occasions, I can see the outlines of a completely different sort of practice of intellectual life that is strongly distinguished from the kind of scholarly communities and relations that I see in the overall discipline of history or in the field of African studies. Work on synthetic worlds is often largely agnostic about disciplines, about the formalities of academic professionalism, about the hierarchies that often mar scholarly life. This is not to say that it is undisciplined or careless. The remarkable thing for me is that you can get ethnographers, economists, political scientists, legal scholars, literary critics, business experts, technologists and many others in a room with each other and have incredibly productive conversations where each contribution is shaped by a rigorous methodology, and yet have relatively little gatekeeping.
This is not to say that the field is free of really strong conflicts. I’ve written in the past about the conflict between what’s called “ludology” and “narratology”, which I think sort of translates to a rematch of Levi-Straussian structuralism with a poststructuralist hermeneutics, though there’s more involved than that. (Loosely speaking, the ludologists tend to think that games, including synthetic worlds, should be known in terms of their formal or structural properties; narratologists in terms of the communicative and expressive content and meanings embedded within those worlds.) People with different disciplines can talk past one another or get snotty about their own preferred methodologies. At a recent conference, a lot of us took the opportunity to aggressively bash a presentation that was premised on evolutionary psychology. The academics sometimes despair that the practicioners ignore them and the practicioners roll their eyes at the relative uselessness of what the academics have to say. Existing conflicts do not magically vanish, just because you’re working on synthetic worlds, games, online discourse, what have you. No kumbayas need apply.
However, the sense of community I get is still dramatically different. The transaction costs involved in having a new conversation, finding a new insight, adopting new methodological tools, getting involved in a productive collaboration are so much lower than in history or African studies. I’m involved now in a large and growing group of scholars and practicioners who are playing in one of the major existing online games together. That’s just plain fun, obviously, and not everything scholars do could be like that, much as I might like to walk into a department meeting in plate armor and with a sword. But I also feel we’ve had some serious, substantive discussions in between bashing virtual elves on the head, some of which have spun out into shared public spaces for thinking like Terra Nova. What makes those discussions productive is not just that they’re happening in a fun space: it is part of the intellectual architecture of interest in the topic.
Why I bring this up in the context of academia’s ongoing problems is that I feel a constant sense of melancholy about the likely unsustainability of this intellectual moment. Academic work on games, virtual worlds, cyberculture and the like is under constant, increasing pressure for standardization and institutionalization, and that pressure comes from all sides and is often coming from people with perfectly good, even laudable intentions.
On one hand, it’s coming from people who are perfectly right to be concerned about justifying scholarly attention to such topics with a wider public. That’s not just about trying to pick up legitimacy in the eyes of public officials who finance higher education, but about a wider cultural and social credibility. Edward Castronova’s new book Synthetic Worlds is a really great, thorough, intellectually rigorous overview of the topic and of evolving research concerns within it, but what kind of treatment does he get from the New York Times Book Review? They assign some pseudo-doyen of the literati ancien regime to trot out by-the-numbers snobbery about the brave new world of online popular culture, much as the high-culture tastemakers of a previous generation used to hold forth about the evils of television. The reviewer is the kind of person who read a newsmagazine article about The Sims five years ago and thinks that’s the alpha and omega of the story.
It’s hard to have to recapitulate a legitimating claim for yourself every time you tell people what you do, to explain soberly why comic books or synthetic worlds or television matter or are worth studying. So we try to institutionalize that explanation in our own universities and in the wider culture, and that involves standardization of all sorts.
Me, I think it’s enough to say that anything millions of people do is important, and anything that makes billions of dollars off the activities of those millions of people is doubly so. There are a great many other reasons to care about synthetic worlds, about their potential as mirrors of or experimental versions of human society, as vehicles for expression and art, and as a new form of sociality that has real-world economic and cultural impact. I’m glad to offer those reasons if asked, but I readily concede it would be nice to have those reasons precede me, be available as a form of widely distributed common sense.
Even more, however, the pressure for standardization comes from within academic life. I can afford to be dismissive of that pressure, insensate to it. I have tenure. Even more than having tenure, I even have a “legitimate” scholarly field that dominates my writing and teaching. Nothing in my own future career depends on my interest in synthetic-worlds, save my own personal satisfaction. That’s not true for some of those scholars who are eagerly pushing for the creation of “game studies” as a discipline, for specialized journals that publish work in “game studies”, for a body of canonical theory in “game studies”, and so on. Their futures may depend absolutely on their success in those efforts. It’s not true for scholars being trained in disciplines like literary criticism, anthropology, economics or legal studies. They can’t afford methodological and disciplinary eclecticism, or gaining credibility among the community of people interested in synthetic worlds at the cost of building reputation capital in their own disciplines.
I felt this incredible sense of despair the other night when one of the members of our growing group of online scholars playing together talked over the game’s chat channel about his dissertation. It’s an amazing dissertation: I’m really impressed with his discussions of it, of the kinds of research he’s doing, about the ways in which its implications thread together psychology, cultural criticism, aesthetics and sociology, and about the potential uses of the research both for understanding what virtual worlds are and what they might yet become, the abstract and practical senses of his work. But he worried, in the context of his graduate program of study, in a conventional humanities discipline, about his “lack of theory”, about the need to have a kind of authenticated body of canonically disciplinary theory mentioned prominently in what he was writing.
I despaired because I can’t imagine anything less necessary or meaningful to the kind of work he’s actually doing, to the value of his inquiry, than name-dropping a bunch of the usual crit-theory suspects. I despaired because there is no way in hell that I would tell him not to do that. If I were his advisor, I’d insist that he do it.
That’s the face of the Gordian knot, in this case. To be responsible to the futures of people committing to new projects, new ways of communicating and disseminating knowledge, new areas of study, we have to domesticate them, regulate them, restrict them to the forms and rituals of academic life. To do anything else is malpractice, a blithe kind of irresponsibility. Take your own risks, but don’t impose them on others. That’s not what a good teacher does. The only alternative is to create institutional programs that value such work on its own terms, and to do that means creating all the mechanisms of disciplinarity and standardization all over again. You can’t propose, in almost all colleges and universities, a Department of Cool Stuff, something equivalent to the animating spirit behind XeroxPARC or similar centers of private research and development. You’ve got to describe for others what constitutes “real” study of synthetic worlds (or any other novel topic), pin it down, restrict it. Which is a solution as bad as the ill it seeks to cure, most of the time.
There’s a lot of talk in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) about Franklin this week. That spirit of generative amateurism, exploratory practical knowledge, and so on. That’s the dream that still lies somewhere deep in the DNA of scholarly life and which fights its way to the surface now and again. I have no idea how to make it more than a brief gasp of freedom in between episodes of stricture, how to change the spirit and culture of inquiry in subtle but pervasive ways. There are few real villains arrayed against that shift, much as it would be convenient to think otherwise. Mostly it is responsible people behaving responsibly, or busy, productive people whose own arrangements work well enough for them, well enough that they don’t really see any need for sustained change.