January 26, 2005

Burke’s Home For Imaginary Friends

At a lunch meeting, I made a presentation to the faculty and administration today about blogging, along with my colleague Eric Behrens. I wish there had been more time for discussion and questions: some interesting things came up after the meeting had broken up. (Eric has set up a comments thread at his blog for any Swarthmore attendees who have questions or comments on the presentation.)

I said I write essays for several online publications for five reasons:

1) Because I want to introduce some unexpected influences and ideas into my intellectual and academic work. I want to unsettle the overly domesticated, often hermetic thinking that comes with academic specialization. I want to introduce a “mutational vector” into my scholarly and intellectual work.
2) Because I want a place to publish small writings, odd writings, leftover writings, lazy speculations, half-formed hypotheses. I want a place to publish all the things that I think have some value but not enough to constitute legitimate scholarship. I want a chance to branch into new areas of specialization at a reduced level of intensity and seriousness.
3) Because I want to find out how much of my scholarly work is usefully translatable into a wider public conversation. A lot of my writings on Iraq, for example, are really a public working-out of more scholarly writing I’m doing in my current monograph, a translation of my academic engagement with the historiography of imperialism.
4) Because I want to model for myself and others how we should all behave within an idealized democratic public sphere. I want to figure out how to behave responsibly but also generatively, how to rise to the better angels of my communicative nature.
5) Because I’m a compulsive loudmouth.

After listening, one of my colleagues asked a question that’s fairly typical and yet it really made me think once again about some perennial questions. She wondered if any of this blogging stuff leads to real, human connections.

Well, sure it does, I replied. I observed that I had just recently had a chance to meet John Holbo in real life, to our mutual delight. I’d met up with some of my Cliopatria colleagues at the American Historical Association. (The online reporting of both encounters largely seemed to lead to the dissing of my beard, though. Geez.) And I feel I’ve made real, powerful, emotionally resonant connections with other online correspondents over the years, even if we haven’t met face-to-face.

I thought about it some later. It’s also true that a lot of my online work is about a more abstract sense of human connection through an impersonal public sphere. That’s no different than scholarship..We know some of our colleagues in our disciplinary speciality very well—often people of our same generational cohort. Others exist as nothing more than fellow professionals, whom you know through their writing and maybe a bit of gossip here and there. So blogging is not exactly radically different than any writing in that way, including scholarly writing.

On the other hand, my blog writing does feel surreal to me sometimes. It involves me in a discursive world that sometimes feels like a small town where everyone knows one another. Kieran knows Harry who knows Russell who knows Laura who knows Rana who knows Elizabeth who knows John. They all know me, or at least the highly public, constrained, particular reduction of me who manifests in my online voice.

There’s a circle of people reading and writing about each others blogs and so much of what they have to say influences my waking thoughts. I crave their approval and respect. But at the same time, so little of that conversation comes into explicit ways into my day-to-day professional life or my personal life. I can come home and say, “You’ll never believe what that Belle Waring had to say today!”, but it takes so much set-up to stop the flow of an always-moving discussion and explain it to my wife that it’s not really worth the effort. I can say to a colleague, “I think you’ll really like what Russell Arben Fox had to say recently”, but I always feel vaguely embarrassed when I do, because I don’t know what they’ll think if they do go and look—will it take too much prior experience of ongoing discussions to appreciate it? will they wish I hadn't wasted their time on something that they couldn't immediately cite and make 'normal' scholarly use out of?—and because I feel a little like the guy who goes to lectures by engineers and tries to tell them about his perpetual motion machine. Sometimes it’s like being under the spell of some alien intelligence, on the other side of an ethnographic divide, a native mumbling to the patient, civilized researcher about the inexpressible interior feeling of his own culture.

One of my Cliopatria colleagues observed in Seattle that he was glad to see I can say funny things now and again and I thought, not for the first time, about just how truncated and selective that public voice of mine is. I might occasionally drop into pure humor, but mostly I’m trying so hard to be respectable and fair and ethical that I don’t feel I can be humorous. There’s no way to convey the tone of warmth and gentle self-deprecation that makes a joke in my real life funny: online it feels just snarky and unfair to its target, unthoughtful. Of course, I also don’t talk about my strong feelings on many subjects, because I don’t feel they have a proper place when I’m trying to be judicious and show fairness and have some intellectual heft.

This bleeds over into other things. I don’t generally like to talk about my everyday life or feelings in the blog. I think to myself, why would anyone care? To be completely honest, I don’t always care when reading blogs that about other people’s personal troubles and tribulations. It’s a bit like when I’m playing a massively-multiplayer computer game and some other character in my party stops to say that he needs to take a break because he’s got diarrhea. Too much information! Too much information! Keep the fleshworld out of my pure cyberworld, man. Still, other times, I really want to know and help and feel: it’s part of the pluralism of the online environment, that there’s a space for diaries and essayists and everything in between. Sometimes I’m looking for that. Other times, someone has given me so much of intellectual value at some moments that I want to repay them by reading along sympathetically while they talk about their divorce or their engagement or their depression or their sex lives.

Even that’s one of the issues here: online discourse, whether you come to it for an exploration of personal lives and feelings or a pure Habermasian public sphere, is experienced in staccato, in fragments. It doesn’t have the experiential cohesiveness of reading a novel or a letter. It doesn’t have the temporal situatedness (and inescapable tangibility) of everyday real-world life. I can come and go in both the thoughts and lives of others as I please with no one the wiser.

As I started on this essay after lunch, I decided to go look at Justin Hall’s website, links.net, which I catch up with every once in a while. Justin had a significant impact on me when I was just starting here as a faculty member: I was both excited and repelled by the online presence he’d crafted. It was so suggestive of the possibilities of online work, both technological and communicative, but he was doing exactly what I wouldn’t ever want to do personally, and that’s use the web for a kind of performance art, a lengthy form of written self-exploration and self-revelation. I had not even the faintest interest in writing about what he wrote about: his sex life, his personal relationships, his spirituality. In his hands, it was fascinating, important, useful—and helped me define the opposite online aspirations I have, to be the respectable, restrained, fair-minded intellectual trying to work within a highly idealized public sphere.

I catch up with Justin’s site every few months, occasionally pop into his comments threads. Sometimes I don’t read it very carefully, sometimes he’s writing about something I find really interesting. Sometimes it seems like schtick, other times affectingly genuine. I like him as a person: it’s a way of keeping tabs on him. Lately we’ve run into each other playing City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, which is both cool and vaguely unnerving. I mean, here I am a level 50+ character on World of Warcraft and all, he can do the math and know that means that two hours a night or more have been given up to the game in the last month. A little intimacy surrendered at that moment, and yet, there’s so much to talk about with him. My gameplaying is always half academicized anyway, always grist for some genuine (I think) intellectual mill. So a few nights back, he pops up, we talk about the issues, I bounce some ideas for an upcoming Terra Nova essay off of him while my character creeps around some dripping cave inhabited by alien insects.

I have no idea that about a week before we’re meeting up in World of Warcraft, he’s gone and posted this video, and then suspended his work at links.net. So today I view the video in various stages of dismay and concern. I see that it's actually been discussed in all sorts of places, including Grand Text Auto, a site I really like. I’m thinking, if my online connections were real ones, I’d know this already. Hell, if I were half the online reader I'm supposed to be, I'd know it. I wouldn’t have been chatting with him about virtual worlds, but asking him how he’s doing and if everything’s ok. But you watch the video and you realize that it’s both genuine and performative, self-indulgent and heartfelt, a plea for connection and a manipulation of the idea of connection, authentic and pretentious as all hell. Like links.net itself has always been. Which is exactly what Justin is grappling with: he is now, like all artists and public figures, a prisoner of his art. Justin Hall now has to live with his doppleganger: “Justin Hall”, the stick figure he made out of hundreds of thousands of words published online over eleven years.

Whom is it that I know and care about? I think it’s Justin Hall, but mostly I hear about him through “Justin Hall”. Because it’s “Justin Hall”, I’m fine with forgetting about him for months on end. But maybe it’s a mistake to attribute that to blogging or online discourse. I’m not really a very attentive friend in general. If people are out of sight, they’re out of mind. Not because I don’t care. The title of this blog was chosen very deliberately and expressively. My intellectual persona here is indeed easily distracted, but so am I in everyday emotional life. I forget stuff and people and obligations all the time, with (I hope, I feel, I pray) no malice, but just because something has caught my eye and I’m deep in the coils of my own mind for a while, behind a wall of mist.

Again, it’s not really different than any kind of writing or art or public life. It’s all about the formation of a double consciousness, the productive disconnect of an interior, inexpressive self from a speaking self. I like it that way. I believe in a kind of decorum and formality in the public sphere; I believe in the public sphere as a democratic and thus somewhat impersonal ideal, the meaningful incarnation and structural guarantee of freedom all at once.

Real human as well as valuably professional connections do come to you from what you write, whether it’s a peer-reviewed scholarly article in a well-respected journal or a blog entry. The connections that come to you through blogging are more unanticipated, less domesticated, but as I said to my colleagues today, that’s the point. I do worry sometimes, as Justin worries, that what makes it all valuable and generative also increasingly afflicts me in a real, lived, everyday context with intellectual and emotional aphasia, that I am constantly transformed and affected by relationships with are entirely in my own head as far as everyone around me is concerned. It’s kind of like being the tree falling in the forest with no one around. Damn right I make a sound! I think.