Academic Blogging, 3

by zunguzungu

In a recent comment at the Valve, John Holbo re-asserted the principle that the blogosphere can play and should play a certain complementary role with respect to academic publishing, that “every book should get a book event when it’s published, otherwise the whole system is out of whack.” As he wrote way back in 2005 in the Valve’s inaugural post:

“Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed – should have its own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book – i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed – that is not given it’s own blog comment box – has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born…”

I pretty much agree, as does everyone, that “the whole system is out of whack,” though much good it accomplishes to say so. But it’s worth re-stressing that the problem with our system of academic publishing — okay, one of the many problems — is how high the entrance standards are in money and time and how slow the conversation moves. Books are laborious and ponderous, and so are articles; an article that emerges into the world two years after its author started writing it — given the glacial pace of peer reviewing and other factors — means a response will not be published until four years after the thought process began. If we think in terms of books, the conversation becomes preposterously slow. And a conversation that occurs at the level of decades is not a useful conversation, nor one exclusively conducted in isolation from anyone who isn‘t monomaniacally in pursuit of a tenure track R1 job.

So maybe this distinction: scholarly books and articles are monologic statements and, as monuments to the solitary life-work of a single individual, they serve as accumulations of knowledge, not voices within a larger scholarly dialogue. Regulating that discourse through the accreditation system of the academy (one must be a specialist to claim specialist knowledge and peer review makes sure you are) makes sure it does that job well. But to the extent that the system of academic publishing does that job well — and in some cases, it really does — it tend to fail as a conversation, the articulation of diversity as diversity. Which is really to say something else: the diachronic work of accumulating knowledge, the larger project that the university as a whole is embarked on, in theory, is not the same thing as the synchronic conversations people have with each other out of which difference is articulated as such, which is sometimes pejoratively called politics. While the former moves forward in a developmental manner, building on itself as a process of accretion and incorporation (the way science works), the logic of the latter is to jettison the “unified field theory” ideal from the get go and to produce knowledge through irreconcilable differences of opinion. “Writing by Committee” is rightfully maligned, but taking part in a good conversation can teach you things that simply reading someone’s book cannot (however much the converse may also be true); learning by training yourself to understand someone’s disagreement with you and then articulating your disagreement back to them in language they can understand is something we do quite badly, most of the time, yet as an exercise in thinking, it represents, I think, one of the most valuable forms of knowledge production there is. It’s why anthropologists think of fieldwork as a positive exercise in self-transformation and why teaching a class on Things Fall Apart has taught me things about that book than reading it ever would.

But I say this as a way of thinking through the place of blogs with respect to academic conversations; with all the problems that the medium has, it allows a kind of speed of reaction to the published text or article that no other medium really allows; a blog review of an academic book could be essentially simultaneous with its publication, while print reviews often lag as much as a year behind, at best. And while anyone can participate, this seems to me to be exactly the point: a lot of garbage gets let in when you lower the price of entry, but a lot of stuff that would have been wastefully filtered out gets added into the mix. More than that, though, publication is about control and always has been; if you control the presses, the distribution, and the officialization of discourse, what can be said and thought become a much more limited category. But it’s very hard to control or regulate the internet. Worrisome as it might be that all roads are increasingly leading to google, it is also true that the google model of publication renders censorship (in the old fashioned sense) almost implausibly difficult, and a lot of avenues open up if we make use of what it can do well in a complementary relationship to what the academic publishing model does well.