Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory (and a little on Spivak)

[Cross-posted at the Valve; part of the Spivak event]

This post was partially inspired by John Holbo's comment on an earlier post: that he doesn't mind what theorists do, he only wishes they would be humble and honest enough to disown the role of the all-knowing priest. Rather than go to conferences and have big-wigs impart wisdom unilaterally (which is almost always how it works), isn't it better to envision intellectual work as an ongong conversation to which many people might fairly contribute? Non-trivially, John suggests blogging as a model for that kind of conversation. John is (like me) a person who probably identifies as much as a blogger as a critic or teacher, so this merits further exploration.

Two other prefatory thoughts: First, it isn't just about whether or not one can stomach Spivak, or Derrida, or Hardt/Negri, or Zizek. The subtext continues to be the question of theory itself, which needs to be reevaluated and reconsidered. Secondly, I think it's worth addressing the medium in which we're trying to have this conversation, which is remarkably unlike the space of an academic conference or an academic journal.

Here I will propose to use 'blogging' and 'theory' as terms that refer specifically to a practice of writing, not so much an "academic culture" or an ideological framework. And I'll ask: what can blogging (not 'the blogosphere') say to theory, and what can theory say to blogging?

* * *

The qualities that have always attracted me to theory parallel the things that attracted me to blogging two years ago. I wanted a free space to explore ideas, to think through problems in different spheres of life, and to generally give my mind a bit of exercise that teaching alone might not offer. Both blogging and theory can be engrossing and hugely rewarding, though institutionalization and certain bad habits means that both can also be a drag.

For the basic definition of "theory" I'm using today, I'll draw on Jonathan Culler, from Literary Theory: A Short Introduction (the first chapter is online here). Here is Culler on "Theory as Genre":

[Theory is] a body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define. The philosopher Richard Rorty speaks of a new, mixed genre that began in the nineteenth century: 'Beginning in the days of Goethe and Macaulay and Carlyle and Emerson, a new kind of writing has developed which is neither the evaluation of the relative merits of literary productions, nor intellectual history, nor moral philosophy, nor social prophecy, but all of these mingled together in a new genre.' The most convenient designation of this miscellaneous genre is simply the nickname theory, which has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong. This is the simplest explanation of what makes something count as theory. Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field.

Culler's somewhat unsatisfying definition echoes Rorty's negative definition. Perhaps it's not an accident; isn't one of theory's essential qualities its undefinability? Theorists are always chasing after other people's dogs.

But undefinability might not always be a bad thing. For one, it parallels what I see as a certain undefinable quality in blogging. At a basic level, I would define blogging as a frequent practice of quasi-public expression, which is as comfortable deflecting the self (borrowing, quoting, linking, and anonymity) as it is in expressing it (i.e., your basic confessional blog post). It is also fundamentally interactive and requires active involvement: one might read a number blogs and be involved in the culture, but it isn't until one actually starts keeping one's own blog that it becomes something qualitatively different from, say, participating in an email listserv or chat room.

A couple of years ago we were considering the possible value of blogging (on Crooked Timber, as I recall) against conventional ideas of academic publication. But at least in terms of understanding what blogging is, that might be the wrong question to ask. Blogging (which is, after all, an idea goes well beyond the walls of academia -- and we academic bloggers tend to accept how it's been defined for us) isn't just a proxy for "publication" in the professionalized academic sense. It's really a much more fundamental approach (in psycho-social terms) to writing.

Why do it? What is, after all, so exciting about these public diaries that are date-stamped? What makes it so addictive? Why has it emerged so rapidly, and why does it appeal to some people so much more than others?

I can't answer all these questions (though I would welcome comments on them), but I might hazard this: perhaps the power of blogging has less to do with the form (i.e., the specific technology of blogging software) than with the ego-investment it seems to encourage. Bloggers create and constantly nurture these public avatars, that are measured, counted, and endlessly evaluated and ranked. One's blogging avatar isn't exactly coterminous with one's natural idea of self, partly because a blog persona has to be much more self-consciously careful and constructed. A similar kind of ego-investment is also present in massive multiplayer role-playing games: my character on the internet is me, but not really. (And as with RPGs, hopefully there is some element of play involved in the propagation of a blogger's persona.)

* * *

Let's take another paragraph from Culler on theory, and see how it might be related to blogging:

The main effects [sic] of theory is the disputing of 'common sense': common-sense views about meaning, writing, literature, experience. For example, theory questions

* the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker 'had in mind'.
* or the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere, in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses,
* or the notion that reality is what is 'present' at a give moment.

Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as 'common sense' is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don't even see it as a theory. As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premisses or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted: What is meaning? What is an author? What is it to read? What is the 'I' or subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?

There might seem to be a contradiction with blogging here, where common sense is said to rule and anything that smacks of obscurantist jargon is readily mocked. But I don't think the contradiction sticks. Though excessive academic jargon is still a problem, the idea that blogging is really a space for the expression of common sense is overstated. It can be used that way, but blogging is at least as much a space where individual writers work out how they see the world as it is an index for popular opinion.

As a practice of writing, blogging demands constant reflection. It's not considered sufficient to simply say that you agree with a certain political party's point of view, and you're done. The most interesting bloggers (one thinks of Tim Burke or BitchPhD) are somewhat unpredictable and ideologically complex: they are trying to think for themselves, and see everything as freshly as possible. As part of blogging's ethos of individualized, autonomous writing, bloggers try not to repeat themselves, or merely echo a party line. (Partisan blogging has become more and more prevalent, and is always threatening to turn blogging into an extension of the corporatized world of mass media-entertainment-news-politics. Perhaps I'm referring to the "spirit of blogging" here more than material reality... A fair objection.)

So I guess I don't think that eclecticism (which is not quite the same as
bricolage) is a bad thing. Going from Culler's non-definition above, it's probably one of theory's constitutive values. Isn't it a core virtue in blogging as well?

In expanding the parallels between blogging and theory (say, in a fully developed essay), one could also get into some theoretical particulars. It might be interesting to revisit the Foucauldian idea of a nexus between power and knowledge in light of the internet's redistribution of access to information. It might also be worthwhile to go back to Derrida and re-theorize the idea of writing as 'supplement' in light of blogging's intensive preoccupation with individualized 'voice' -- ironic, given that this is a medium where writing rules, and voice is relegated to the sad little ghetto called "podcasting." (And we could also talk about "blogger's brevity," but only at the risk of sacrificing it ourselves.)

* * *

A word or two on Spivak, based on the streaming video of Spivak's lecture at UCSB that I watched last night. (I tried my hand at rereading "Scattered Speculations" and "Ghostwriting" and was sadly uninspired.)

The lecture is something else. As Spivak admits towards the end, she didn't really have time to write a script for it -- and some of the anecdotes she tells reveal why: she had just come from the Boundary 2 Conference; she had just come from an indigenous people's knowledge conference in rural South Africa; she had just been having dinner with Catherine Stimpson in New York; she had just been on the phone with Romila Thapar ... and so on. And: the title itself of the talk itself was given to her by the editors of the journal Rethinking Marxism, so that's why she's doing a keynote "On the Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work": someone else suggested she write about herself, so she did.

The lecture is fairly overrun with Spivak's namedroppy anecdotes. She's gives the impression she's so busy she doesn't have time to actually write anymore. And perhaps she is. But instead of thinking about the lecture with sympathy for the pressures produced by Spivak's lifestyle as an academic superstar, we might consider what it is actually like to sit and listen to this kind of disorganized talk, which is sometimes about her idea of the "New Subaltern," sometimes about secularism and rationality (she goes after Meera Nanda two or three times), and sometimes about her Bengali Marxist intellectual milieu. Through it all, she never pins herself down to a concrete politics or epistemic framework (i.e., "modernity," "postmodernity," or "anti-modernity"). For me, it's the latter failure that's most irritating, though there might be other formal or aesthetic problems with the talk as well.

If you don't have time to sit down and watch the lecture, Spivak covers some related points in this interview with Jenny Sharpe in Signs (PDF). Notice again the constant reference to the fact that she just got off an airplane (this time from Hong Kong, where she spent three months teaching Aristotle in Greek and Dante in Italian, etc. There isn't so much name-dropping, though it's thick with anecdotes).

Arguing off the cuff, Spivak is still doing "theory," but she's doing it in bite-size epigrams, and with a nearly constant reference to herself. I find it tedious to read and to listen to; she's as all over the place as an over-caffeinated celebrity blogger who looks everywhere and sees only signs of herself.


sepoy said...

just heard zizek on theory...and how it will save our souls.
he called himself a western fundamentalist [w/ regard to his belief in theory]. cute.

12:15 AM  

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