Digital Calluses and Tender Hands

J.J. Cohen’s reflection “The Darker Side of Blogging” is a very interesting read in many respects. I could certainly write an account of my experiences as an academic blogger that echo some of Cohen’s experiences, including the negative ones.

What I try to remind myself of is that some of what I imagine to be the novel consequences of a new medium may be phenomena of long-standing, that what is novel is visibility, scale and preservation rather than type of experience.

Any time I look into the historiography of a particular debate or paradigm in scholarly literature, it doesn’t take long before I find a vein of nasty or snide exchange between some of the principal shapers of that debate. Usually you would look in vain for a generous acknowledgement of error or misstatement long after it was established that one party was in the wrong. I remember very well that at the beginning of my academic career, I somehow rated a dismissive footnote in a memoir by a major figure in my field, aimed at my forthcoming monograph. I didn’t mind, as I was cocky enough to brush it off and all of my friends and peers found it laughably mis-targeted. I was kind of amused that the same author’s most recent book devotes a number of pages to the same kind of issues that my first book dealt with, in a pretty similar manner to what I wrote. That was a little and harmless example, but the history of scholarly communities in the West over the course of the last two centuries are loaded with cases where this sort of thing was anything but harmless or trivial in its consequences and tone.

Maybe it’s also generational. I take a visceral delight in reading past generations of scholars and writers ripping each other to shreds in print, but I’ve never been much of one for playing dodgeball myself, and I think a lot of academics my age feel the same. They just don’t want to live like that.

Maybe what blogs and other digital publications are starting to do is provide an ongoing record of the real-life gaps between idealized descriptions of the dispassionate production of scholarship and the death-of-a-thousand-cuts pettiness of how it sometimes gets debated, deferred, and discouraged. I’ve found that many academic bloggers have turned to online writing in order to counteract feelings of isolation or disconnection from their institutions, or colleagues, or disciplines. Sometimes that turn is precisely about wanting to opt out of intense, personally targeted fights in those real-world academic settings. So sometimes we come to blogging hoping to find something better, and sometimes we actually experience that sense of an enriched, constructive scholarly world. Which lasts as long as the first time someone comes gunning for you with conventional kinds of academic ammunition. Add to that the extent to which blogging and other digital publication plugs you into much wider networks and patterns of knowledge circulation, which is both energizing and frightening, as well as something which gradually increases your sense of distance from the more intensely specialized and disciplinary discourses that your colleagues may remain primarily oriented towards. When you realize that much of what you spend your day reading and thinking about is recognizable and important to a network of hundreds of intellectuals around the country but is entirely unknown to all but a handful of local colleagues, you may question whether or not digital publication has actually widened or generalized your work as an academic. Maybe it’s just another kind of specialization, and offers all the same bruising competition for professional capital that any other niche has.

I don’t ultimately feel that way at all, but much of what I hope for in academic blogging remains potential rather than actual. Realizing at least some of that potential involves persuading more people to participate in a wider variety of digital venues and formats. Nevertheless, I try not to oversell the benefits of digital or online work. It works for me far more often than not, but I’ve built up a lot of resistance to (and studied avoidance of) the more unpleasant kinds of digital conversation.

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One Response to Digital Calluses and Tender Hands

  1. Historicist says:

    Seems we love both the thrill of combat, and to be protected from it. Love of war and calls for peace are surely constants in human history. We academics seem to prefer calls for peace in the real world–but only because we’ve developed elaborate ways to engage in our love of combat with each other.

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