Thursday, 22 January 2009

Roadkill on the information superhighway?

Once every so often I try to be a bit reflexive on this blog by talking about the nature of the blogosphere, and as alluded to by the title of this post, the place of this blog in it. I think it is already 2 years ago in "Why Bother Having Sitemeter on This Blog?" that I raised a swag of related issues. Over time I feel that my intuitions have been reinforced, to the extent that things have pretty much come full circle. I guess the initial attraction of blogging was how liberating it felt compared to both the academic thesis I'd just finished, and the academic papers I work on as a freelance editor. Indeed, one of my very first posts, "Words of advice for young people..." and later, "scholarshit", captured some of my feelings about academic gatekeeping methods. I figured, if nothing else, posting regularly would help sharpen up my writing skills.

So then I started to blog, when suddenly it hit me: the kind of theory I'd critically engaged with in my academic work had not disappeared, but simply migrated into the new medium (on this blog, this is usually taken to mean the application of Continental philosophy to popular culture). Does this mean then that everything in both spheres is just relativised (and reified) into one gigantic "will to power"? Only to a certain extent, because the importance difference is this: the blogosphere is a clusterfuck:

"A chaotic mess that might be compared to group sex, in which participants are so intertwined and intermingled that they might penetrate each other rather than their intended target. Its more precise usage describes a particular kind of Catch 22, in which multiple complicated problems mutually interfere with each other's solution."

In other words, the blogosphere is a tendentious medium bereft of the gatekeeping mechanisms of academic publishing that provide some modicum of parity and objectivity. For the advantage in the academic world is its approximation of that great Australian democratic innovation- the secret ballot. When a paper is submitted, it is subject to a double blind peer review process, whereby the author does not know who will be reviewing their work, and the reviewers don't know who the author is. This helps indemnify the piece from the more insidious characteristics of the blogosphere. Consider this contrast; even if a blogger chooses to write anonymously, they can still easily become a prisoner of their own creation, at least when posting on their own blog. Afterall, one is left open to forms of censure requiring no reasoned response, but simply the removal of any links ("trace evidence" if you like) back to the [original] critical post. Modifying Richard Dawkins' biological metaphor of the "selfish gene" somewhat, this means that the sharing of links can potentially function as nothing more than vehicles for bloggers to ensure their own reproduction. Once you realise this, the economics of attention in the blogosphere, as measured by numbers of links, hits, or even comments, appears more dubious than citation practices in academia (where at review level authors are at least assured of detailed referee reports that can help the author develop their work, even if the reports are very critical).

I had my suspicions at the outset though, which is one of the major reasons I chose for the iconography of this blog the mummified space jockey transmitting from the outermost rim of the information grid. I also knew that social theorists/sociologists were, for the most part, conspicuous only by their absence in the blogsophere. But like I also said, I am hardly one for valorising academic publishing for its own sake. I instead look forward to the day when there is a more equitable distribution of resources, thanks to the push towards open access publishing as the new model. One of the major problems therefore is the monopoly on access that academics currently enjoy, thanks to the exorbitant subscription prices publishers slap on their ejournals, which prevents independent researchers from accessing them through academic libraries. This problem is compounded by the cost of databases, which gives the independent researcher little alternative to resources such as Google Scholar.

Having said that, in the interim I like to dream of more cooperative models eventuating. Believe me, sour grapes are not, and have never been, the underlying issue here. If they were, I would need to have previously made a concerted [unsuccessful] effort to ingratiate myself into the inner circle. Neither myself, or the other team members on this blog, have ever bothered to do this. So when I question myself, all I have to do is think of the kinds of critical issues that might have arisen had, for example, another [popular] blog dedicated to one particular famous science fiction author, instituted to the letter the kind of critical methodology explicitly foregrounded in the published work of that blogger's academic supervisor (to wonder aloud though, is not necessarily to imply opportunism on the part of that blogger, I am just curious about the potentially detrimental effect on that blog's status as a nodal point in its associated interpretive community).

I can never forget the passage where said supervisor writes in his book about a popular strain of cultural theory, (mirroring in many regards, the issues I can sometimes have with Continental philosophy meets popular culture in the blogosphere type writing), introduced by Stuart Hall, who he pictures as a kind of Dr Frankenstein, laboring in his [quoting from memory here as I don't have the book here with me as I write this), "filthy workshop of creation...stitching together a theoretical Frankenstein's monster out of semiotics... [and Post-Marxist theory]...much of this is of little real value, but today it is alive, alive-o!" By extension, Hall's initiatives cleared a path for later cultural studies, and acted as enablers for his British contemporaries, such as the Lacanian strand of film studies, the house organ of which was the journal Screen. Of course, this ferment of activity also provided an entry point for Slavoj Zizek into the English speaking world, and later, into the blogosphere (where it has come to dominate avant garde cultural theory).

The later example should serve as a reminder of the real world analogue to trends in the "virtual" blogosphere, which a sociology of intellectuals might suggest can be more dependent on mundane institutional considerations/niche marketing, than [desirable] normative values per se. But there is another way forward. In a spirit more of engagement than attack, I wonder if a more dialectical approach is possible, wherein each side could, to some extent, buttress the other? I might be about to make a brief contribution along these lines in a posting on "extreme tourism". Some of the reasons this generally does not come about can be found here, and, in an even more pessimistic vein, here as well. I prefer the first piece because it seems to recognize that we write in a blogosphere that is absolutely rotten with criticism, when what we clearly need is more analysis (Raymond Williams once said the same thing about the popular press). Hence it also offers some constructive alternatives, which are worth following up in the future.

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