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Blogging Theory

The author discusses a subgenre of blogging, the "theory blog," and ponders the limits of free speech in that context, where the hostility of outsiders can have dire consequences

Jodi Dean

A controversial article in the Chronicle of Higher Education from July 7, 2005 treats academic blogging as a matter of the concealments necessary for employment. The problem with blogs, the anonymous author of “Bloggers Need Not Apply” tells us, is that they tell us too much, more than any hiring committee wants to know. I introduce this snide and troubling article not for its censorious, condescending attitude toward job applicants but because it stumbles inadvertently over more serious, theoretical questions of concealment and revelation, inclusion and exclusion that arise at the interface of academia and blogging. The openness of blog discussions calls our attention to the closures often necessary for thinking and all too often obscured in critical left celebrations of transgression. Charlie Bertsch put the question well in an email to me this past spring, “What happens when scholars take the step of opening themselves up to attacks which the academy typically walls out?”

Unwanted Nazi Trolls

What led to Charlie’s email were some posts and exchanges on my blog, “I Cite,” following a talk I gave at a conference on evil at MIT. After the conference, neo-nazis started leaving sexist, homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic comments. A particularly vocal commenter was Bill White, who remarked on how stupid I am and how badly I dress. He linked my little blog to his libertarian-socialist website, “Outrage.” This encouraged other neo-nazis to leave comments on “I Cite,” which they did, asking why I was judgmental against racists and instructing me to show my cunt. As Charlie pointed out in his email, being engaged by a fascist in a public setting raises complex issues of risk and responsibility, issues that the academy all too often prefers to ignore.

The neo-nazis unsettled me. But they were not alone. I’ve also been unsettled by those I can’t place, those who may be satirical, performative in non-pc ways, and those whose comments are just generally disruptive and malicious. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a troll and someone whose style or position one simply doesn’t like. The unsettling of easy patterns of authorization and authentication make it difficult to know with whom one is arguing and remind us how much argument, discussion, presupposes kinds of certainty and stability among participants. The web address of one commenter was the GNAA—which seems to be an anti-blog group with various satirical elements and strategies for irritating bloggers. GNAA stands for Gay Nigger Association of America and apparently gets its name from a short 1992 Danish movie called Gay Niggers from Outerspace, a film that appears to be an actual movie, a porn send up, but I can’t be completely sure.

I don’t like the idea of blocking people from “I Cite” and deleting their comments. Over the past nine months, however, I’ve realized that the exchanges I value only occur within limits. Not everyone can or should participate. Exploring the possibility of something beyond democracy or of a democracy not corrupted by its association with Bush, militarization, and global capital is not something I can do—or want to do—together with neo-nazis. Yet, it is also something that I don’t want to do alone, before the disciplinary eye of academic political theory, or under local pressures for a decision. The incursion of the unwanted thus seems to be part of the risk of thinking with others, part of the vulnerability of opening oneself, one’s words and one’s thoughts, to anyone who might venture upon them.

The commenting feature on most blogs, the very feature that makes them lively sites for argument and exchange, quickly bring homes the necessity of limits and contexts for discussion. On the one hand, an emphasis on the way the context of a statement or practice provides it with coherence has been a staple of contemporary political theory and cultural studies. Stanley Fish (There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech) makes the argument for context in a particularly powerful way: meaning requires limits, discursive parameters establishing the conditions of truth and falsity, of adequation and appropriateness. An argument or position is compelling not when it is context-free but due to the prior operation of power in securing the context within which it becomes compelling. Yet, on the other hand, invocations of context-dependency have been part of the arsenal of critical left academic thought. They’ve been challenges to the closed discussions of the old boys, the elite, the privileged. What do those of us on the critical left do when we are the ones responsible for drawing the lines, setting the limits, that is, when we have to decide on exclusion? How do we bring other values into play, values perhaps associated with transgression, with challenges to normativity, authority, and the hegemonic arrangement of power? Differently put, when one is accustomed to discussion in a critical left, critically informed setting, how does one interact once these assumptions no longer hold, once the discussion is really open, once the audience is really diverse, that is, once it includes those others one finds most other and repellant?

To think about these questions, I approach them indirectly, beginning with some reflection on blogging which I hope to tie back to the question of publics and transgression.

Living in Blog Years

Various media voices have proclaimed each of the last three years the “year of the blog”—that is, the year blogs became mainstream, started getting major print and television notice, or had significant political impact. The Pew Internet and American Life Project established that by the end of 2004 twenty-seven percent of internet users were reading blogs, with seven percent having blogs of their own. Nevertheless, some sixty-two percent of net users weren’t sure what a blog is. Still, mainstream media accounts cite a number of events as evidence for the rising importance of the blogosphere--first hand reports out of Iraq, Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader, Howard Dean’s rise and fall, the retirement of Dan Rather, and the story of right-wing faux reporter Jeff Gannon’s access to the White House. Prominent in such articles are breathless references to citizen or participatory journalism, to blogs as alternatives to mass media, on the one hand, and scolding dismissals of narcissistic navel gazing, of mommy diaries and teenage angst, on the other. What should be more prominent is the remarkable use the right makes of blogs, but that’s another story.

Theory Blogs

At any rate, missing from nearly every account of blogs and blogging is the genre of academic blogs, and its even smaller subset, the theory-minded blog—no doubt because the number of such blogs and their readers is small and their discussions specialized if not downright esoteric—Badiou, Benjamin, Blanchot, Heidegger, Zizek. There are of course a couple of very popular academic bloggers—Glen Reynolds of Instapundit is a law professor and Michael Berube teaches English at Penn State. But both, Reynolds more than Berube, tend more to punditry and political commentary than theory. They don’t blog primarily about their academic work. Their aims, audience, and impact are significantly larger than those of most academic and, more specifically, theory-oriented blogs.

The theory blogs—and I am thinking primarily of about thirty or so interconnected blogs—generally combine personal and theoretical explorations, discussions of culture and politics, reflections on academic practices, and anything that strikes the blogger’s fancy. So, while they share a thread of theoretical concerns, they also differ greatly. The authors might be single or groups. They might or might not allow comments. They might post daily or less than once a week. Their tones and personalities differ. Some blogs are playful, filled with rough and tumble banter. Others feel a bit like a seminar or like meeting up in a restaurant or bar after the seminar has ended in order to continue the discussion. Still others have the feel of reflections, notes, and drafts, moments of thought and writing usually more private and isolated now open to those who might want to consider them, who might have a suggestion or two. I think of notebooks left open for other’s marginalia. What is particularly remarkable is the way these differing blogs interact, conversations moving from one site to another or taking place on several sites at once, conversations branching into differing sets of links, never encompassing them all, but rarely limited to one. So, some of the same people appear in various conversations, although not all of the same people will comment at each blog. What the theory blogs suggest, then, is a practice of blogging that is more than journalism, more than diary keeping, and more than remediation. Ours is a practice of critical conversation beyond and through existing institutional frameworks.

Unexpectedly, from afar

As should by now be clear, these small academic and theory blogs belie a number of assumptions about the internet in general and blogging in particular. And, as they do so, they expose a problem we encounter in cultural studies and critical left theory—a problem regarding a particular celebration of transgression, on the one hand, and a valorization of a notion of publics or counterpublics, on another.

What are some of the assumptions about blogging or networked communications?

A first assumption involves speed. The fast pace of networked communication is a prominent meme. Opinions, image, and information are said to circulate rapidly through the blogosphere, like some kind of digital ebola or influenza. For most, this rapidity is a problem, or an excuse. It explains a lack of reflection, the need to respond immediately.

But theory blogs aren’t like this. A discussion on theory blogs might spread over half a dozen or more blogs over the course of weeks, like some kind of long running seminar. So, I post something about solidarity on I Cite, picking up or reiterating themes already in play on the Weblog and Posthegemony. The blog Before the Law posts a critical rejoinder, countered from different directions in multiple posts by various authors at Long Sunday and again at the Weblog. Sometimes, someone will accumulate the links and post a general guide to the conversation (the blogger from Theoria does this from time to time). Rather than a fast paced media sphere, this exchange is like a slow seminar, focusing on one narrow question that arises on its own, and is addressed over a longer period of time, giving those who engage it opportunity to read and reflect.

I should add that the emphasis on speed overlooks a key feature of blogs—they are archives, specific accountings of the passage of time that can then be explored, returned to, dug up. At any rate, my point is that the temporality of theory blogs is not that of action news, of the reflex conditioned to conform to the hegemonic organization of time spans in terms of specific seasons, cliff hangers, or perpetual urgency. Nor is it the same as the temporality of the face to face seminar, the pressure to respond immediately in the classroom or academic meeting. Instead, it is a more thoughtful, human time. The time one wants to take and is willing to offer.

A second assumption regarding blogs is that all bloggers are “wanna-be” pundits who imagine themselves as talking heads on Cross-Fire or some horrid thing on MSNBC or Fox. I think of this as the “blogs as alternative media” assumption. What underlies it are the guiding notions of corporate media, that is, a kind of market model that focuses on bottom lines of hit counts (audience, mind share), links from A-list bloggers, and mentions in the mainstream press. Dan Gillmor seems to have something like this in mind in his book We the Media. And, in fact, it also appears in a number of other books on blogging and articles on how to blog.

Two contradictory problems with this model of blogging come to the fore when one thinks of theory blogs. The first is the assumption that the best writing gets the most attention. The second is the assumption that the most extreme views sell. (Part of the popularity of this second view rests on rather gothic assumptions regarding the internet as a virtual bedlam of ranting maniacs.) Now, unless one presumes that the best writing is the most extreme writing, these ideas rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways. Why should anyone think that what rises to the top of the blog indexes, what circulates the most or gets the most trackbacks, is the best? That’s like saying that The Purpose Driven Life is a better book than Gender Trouble because it sold more copies. At any rate, the presence of theory blogs and the practice of theorizing on blogs opens us up to interesting and thoughtful writing that aims neither toward popularity nor extremism. Here is a small sample from the blog Spurious:

With, not alone – to write as you travel is not to travel alone. And to read as you shelter is to know that there are others who travel ahead of you, a long way ahead, perhaps, but traveling nonetheless.But in the end, to read, to write, is not to enjoy reciprocity or exchange. Words always come from afar, from the other side of the day or the night, which is to say, unexpectedly.

A third assumption is that blogging is necessarily self-indulgent or narcissistic. This assumption proceeds as if the blogger thinks she is presenting information for all the world, as if her life is intrinsically interesting to everyone. Like the presumption of punditry, this one relies on old, corporate media assumptions, we could even say public sphere assumptions that when one speaks in a mediated environment one is specifically addressing an audience of everyone. But this applies neither to theory blogs nor to any of the personal, life-oriented blogs, I’ve read.

Bloggers know fully well that we may have no readers, a few readers, or hundreds or thousands of readers—we can keep track of hits and visitors. What is more unsettling, and what makes blogging a kind of experiment in voice and presentation is that we don’t know who will find us.We could reveal all and no one would know. Or, we could reveal something mundane, something everyday like an anxiety about our lovers or children or a dismissive remark about a colleague or another academic, and have it a topic of conversation among colleagues or friends of colleagues. And, we might not even know. So, bloggers don’t try to reach the world. Some of us try to reach to others who might share our concerns and perhaps in reaching them to reach another part of ourselves. Here are some examples:

Why I started the blog? Because it seemed like a space - the only space - in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with what I think are appalling cultural and political consequences . My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman and Simon, so there has always been an intense connection between theory and pop/ film for me.No sob stories, but for someone from my background it's difficult to see where else that interest would have come from. Because of that, my relation to the academy has always been uh difficult. The way in which I understood theory - primarily through popular culture - is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally - clinically - depressing.

Dorothea Salo, writing in Caveat Lector
Some people speak about themselves and their families in clichés and polite fictions for many of the same reasons corporations speak in empty, sonorous PR, not least among them desperate fear of the truth. Some people, submerged in the family fictions, lose their real voices in part or wholly. Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error. The “public” nature of blogging is only an excuse, really, for those who want the façades maintained. Public or private is not the issue; the issue is talking truthfully, or writing truthfully, at all. To anyone.

Kim Nicolini, writing for Bad Subjects about her LiveJournal:
…my blog is a project, and I am very conscious of how I use it, the stories I choose to tell, the voice I choose to use, the performance I am giving in this public arena. Through my blog, my art, my history, and my writing are no longer compartmentalized. I have been able to create a new self-portrait, one of my whole self, not fractured crippled bits. I mix stories of my past with pictures of my present, poetry and politics, humor and sadness, film and fashion. All of me with no shame, no censorship. And I build a rhythm into it, moving back and forth through form and sound and image. It’s a big collage of the me I have been assembling all these years. And it is a me who I like.

To return to my point: theory blogging, as and with personal blogging, involves a kind of experiment in writing, in writing with others one may not know, in working through a sense of self through presentation. To be sure, the self that emerges, may not be the one that the author intends. Combinations of posts, over time, can produce the sense of a self that one might not have expected or designed. In a comment on “I Cite,” Chris Robinson described blogging as “a kind of two-way voyeurism. I see into the lived life of others; and, in response, I reveal and surprise myself.”

For me, the work of theory is then an experiment in thinking with others, in putting out ideas as they emerge, before they are tamed and groomed and made presentable for an academic audience. To return to the words of Spurious—it’s a way to try to experience how words come from afar, unexpectedly.

Can I talk to Strangers?

I’ve been arguing that theory blogs belie three assumptions about blogging in particular and networked communications in general, assumptions about speed, punditry, and self-indulgence. In contrast, my experience with blogs is that they allow for slower reflection, the emergence of spaces of affinity through specialized writing, and the experience of a presentation and cultivation of a self. And these three attributes of blogs—reflection, affinity, self-cultivation—necessarily traverse the old liberal division of the world into public and private spheres. This division does nothing to explain or express blog patterns. Most bloggers are not speaking to some kind of infinitely large audience that could mistakenly be deemed a public. Rather, they are speaking to strangers, to ones they do not and may not ever know.

Reflection, affinity, and self-cultivation, whether done in direct conversation with others via the comments feature, or less directly via responses to other blogs that one writes in one’s own way, on one’s own blog, are necessarily exclusive. This is obviously true when we recall the issues of language and access to technology. It is also true when we think of the topics and terminologies, the terms of art with which one thinks, the contexts to which Fish draws our attention. And, it is true when we recognize that one does not have time to read everything, respond to everything, link to everything, explain everything, to debate every single point. To offer one’s thoughts, one’s reflections on one’s life, then, is not enter into a discussion forum where one expects to have to defend every utterance or event from attack, to give reasons for everything one thinks or does. At the same time, it is also not to expect simple acquiescence, agreement, or praise from one who might happen on one’s post and decide to comment. The writing, the thinking, is rather different—more an exposure, invitation, or gift, an offering of one’s vulnerabilities in the hope that the one who accepts the offer will not simply respond, but will be responsive.

There is an openness, a door that a stranger might open, a link on which an other one does not know can click. On a blog, one is not protected by prestige, institutional affiliation, title, or expertise. You have to give these up. In feminist circles, giving up authority has sometimes been considered a goal of collaborative learning, an ideal of an egalitarian classroom. A similar move in anthropology has been to reverse the terms of power, to stop treating the object of study as an object and to disrupt the hierarchical arrangements which privilege the perspective of the observer. Challenging institutional and disciplinary privilege is thus for some academics a vital, even emancipatory practice.

Disrupting academic privilege is also a practice often articulated with a notion of transgression, the transgression of dominant norms and expectations. One uses shock to try to open up thinking to something new. But there are problems here. When we try to undermine our position and expertise, we risk validating it in another way—we are presuming that our authority is there, reinforcing it, not really risking it at all. Indeed, there is something massively condescending with the whole academic celebration of transgression: in establishing the terms of transgression in advance, we validate precisely what we claim we want to contest. We establish that there is a sphere, perhaps a public sphere, in which one is authorized to speak, in which one has a kind of authority and in which expectations of reason and respect govern the terms of discussion. My view is that this notion of transgression relies on the fantasy of an authority that does not exist, indeed, that it embodies an awareness of the fragility of that authority and thus aims ultimately to reinforce it, to affirm it, by addressing it.

In blogging, the terms of transgression are not given in advance. I can write numerous posts about the fascist truth of the Bush administration or the perverse notion of women underlying the Terry Schiavo brouhaha, but this speech is of course permitted. It doesn’t agree with the current hegemony, but it is certainly allowed within it. It doesn’t transgress a thing. And, it is itself called into question, contested, undermined, by comments like the following, from Bill White, the neo-nazi or libertarian socialist I mentioned at the beginning. In a post on “I Cite,” which I removed but saved, White writes:

You live in an environment where debate is not free, and your half-witted ideas are protected and allowed an existence that exposure to reason would not accord them. … You imply here that you are being criticized because you criticized Bush. No. You are being criticized because you sounded stupid while criticizing Bush. Understand that it is not criticism of Bush, but your particular criticism of Bush, that led to the reference to you as "Buffy the Bush Slayer". … God, what do you think of the world? Do you think there are some politically-correct blog police that are going to stop people from criticizing you, like they do at your university? In the United States there is a First Amendment, and just like the First Amendment allows you to prattle on like a moron with vapid ideas that no real person takes seriously, it allows people to point out that your ideas are vapid and you're prattling on like a moron. Not everyone has to be nice to you; not everyone has to agree to you; and your extreme pathological reaction to criticism is disturbing. You are not fully developed psychologically, and I strongly recommend you quit your job and go out into the real world to toughen up a bit, because if you can't debate a few easy criticisms, at some point, the real world will eat you. Even the moron claiming I'm a racist slumlord is doing better than you.

I’ve never addressed White directly in response. In part, I don’t know what to say. It’s as if his remarks shatter the presumptions and expectations that enable me to speak, exposing their specificity, their fragility, their context dependency. I also don’t engage him because of a more general guideline I follow in not debating racist and anti-Semitic positions. I don’t want to participate in enabling such hate to be within the parameters of the permissible. But White’s incursion, I should probably say “participation,” because unwanted, because a transgression disrupting and unsetting my expectations is valuable insofar as it challenges me to take responsibility for the specificity of my practices and assumptions. I can’t pretend to be inclusive, to respect all others. There are others I want to exclude, who I cannot and will not engage. Conservatives are not the only ones who draw a line in the stand or seek to install and defend standards of permissibility. A true transgression, one that is not staged but comes unwanted, from afar, is thus a calling to account. The risk of an encounter with the unwanted and the call to take responsibility for not inviting them in, for excluding them, is thus the opening blogs provide, an opening critical left cultural studies might embrace.

Jodi Dean teaches contemporary political theory.

Copyright © Jodi Dean. All rights reserved.