Harman on the harmfulness of blogs
What has blogging meant to SR? First blogging has increased the speed of exchange (and therefore helps the ideas spread further faster), the breadth of exchange (bringing those ideas into dialogue with a whole range of different people from different disciplines or with different projects), and the openness of exchange (anyone can participate).
The latter has made SR quite ‘democratic
and goes on to claim that:
* SR would not have existed if it was grounded in mainstream academia, though now exists symbiotically with academia.
* The key elements of SR that have made it successful in the blogosphere have been a clear, attractive, but broad identity, around which people can rally, and the willingness of proponents to engage in dialogue with people from different disciplines, and with people who have no prior reputation, itself applying a certain genoristy in exchange.
* The blogosphere itself has added speed, and breadth, as well as contributing to this sense of openness.
Now, I could not agree more with this, and the relationship blogs-SR has been a concern of mine for quite some time. Therefore, I really enjoyed Levi’s own comments on it:
Rather than a single obsession with the relation between humans and the world, snugglebus simultaneously treats the internet or technology as an actor in this movement, a particular electronic community (the theory blogosphere), contingent or chance encounters between different humans such as those between Graham, Nick, Ben, Reid, Shaviro, Jodi, N.Pepperell, Jon Cogburn, Mel, Protevi, Mikhail, Nikki, Peter, Kvond, etc., and many others, the ideational, the amorous or libidinal, speeds of communication and exchange, the universities, and so on. None of these actors can be said to overdetermine the other. The internet, for example, did not make speculative realism or cause speculative realism, but in many respects speculative realism would not exist as it now does without the theory blogosphere or the internet. However, while it’s unlikely that speculative realism could have taken place in its current form in the halls of the academy alone, it is now feeding back into that “scape”.
This is precisely what I think it is important to recognize regarding the blog phenomenon as linked to SR/OOP. Yet, in a series of recent posts (1, 2, 3, 4) Harman elaborated a series of reflections on the use of blogs and on the future form of academic publishing.
Concerned about the use and misuse of them, and prompted by a now infamous ‘fight’ in the SR blogosphere (and let bygones be bygones), he claims that:
blogs are good for information-sharing, but that dispute is better conducted in slower, colder media, and broken up into chunks. You have to let people go up for air now and then.
I think it is often a bit too fast and a bit too hot in the blog medium, [but] it might be quite suitably paced if conducted through PDF debates conducted in chunks weeks or months apart.
Requiring somewhat lengthy response articles would also have the effect, desirable in my opinion, of slowing down the discussion somewhat. Two years for publication is obviously much too long, but the responses occurring in minutes or hours in the blogosphere merely lead to unnecessarily heated quarrels and too much tense pressure for quick responses.
And to repeat, there are two totally different kinds of problems with the medium:
1. trolls, grey vampires, etc.
2. excessive pressure to respond quickly to worthy interlocutors. In many cases it’s nice to have a bit of private time to think these through.
Now, it seems clear to me that what Harman has at heart is to shield proper philosophical discussions (including disagreements) from ‘adolescent hit-and-run stuff’ (and he seems to focus on this problem much more than the average blogger in the SR community). In order to keep the exchange safe from the incursions of trolls and grey vampires, articles and responses would better off if done via (somewhat) lengthy .pdf files via email. As someone who grew up on online forums and mIRC, I am fully aware of the fauna which populates blogs, forums and chats around the internet, and the large abundance of annoying, frustrated people who just enjoy to pick a fight. But, to condemn the blog medium because of that is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Annoying comments and trolling, can be simply ignored; however, it’s another matter to draw lines around the the proper form which a philosophical debate should take. That is, where I do not agree with Harman is when he extends his skepticism towards blogs to encompass their actual potentiality for shaping intellectual production. Let me be clear here: yes, short comments allow for a level of shielded and easy criticism which is quite annoying, but no, this is not enough to disqualify blogs as good means for philosophical exchange. Yes, ‘Descartes and Leibniz were not operating blogs’ but this is simply because blogs were not even a possible option.
Harman seems to believe that books give time for composition and a space for exposition which is impossible to replicate on blogs. That might be the case, and in fact I tend to dislike blogposts longer than 800-1000 words. But can’t this be simply another way for intellectual production? I am not only (but also) making the hypertext-theory/derridean intertextuality argument that hypermedia like blogs can break out of the closed structure of the book by indexing a new spatio-temporally flattened space by instantly linking to other resources, making endnotes and bibliographies an outdated tool, and reinforcing its own text via links with others. I surely believe in this, but my point is a bit different here.
Some time ago I wrote a blogpost on the ‘philosophy videogame’ idea that was circling around between Ian Bogost and Harman. My main point was: one thing is a videogame about philosophy, another a philosophy videogame. Now, this is not only a point that can be exported to the discussion about blogs, but the very worldview of networks formed by the encounter of ontologically real human and non-human actors which OOP proposed should be a theoretical framework which requires us to understand blogs more than mere imperfect intstruments for a dialogue between two human beings.
To welcome the inevitable evolution of academic publishing towards shorter and faster books, and to recognize its ‘democratic’ potential is good (and I applaud it), but to a large extent it means to remain within a classical paradigm: written texts (long or short they might be) are the one and only medium for philosophical content. What we should do is to take the medium itself as being an actor which in itself shapes a philosophical form which would otherwise not be the same. Emails and others non-hyperlinked electronic documents are simply a digital, faster, version of the good old book.
To sum up (because I do not like long blogposts), I do agree with Harman about the (admittedly, occasional) irritating presence of annoying commenters (even if I don’t seem to be as bothered as he is by the problem. Then again, I am a relative no one and he’s a prominent figure in the scene, so presumably more exposed and prone to trolling) and I agree with the general observation that, often, time is necessary for ruminating over ideas. What however I think is important to keep in mind as ‘emancipatory’ ideals for future (and present) philosophies can be summarized in three points:
First: let us fully appreciate the philosophical possibilities intrinsic in the open structure of hypermedia. If you want, this is the hyperlink-theory/textual deconstruction position which promotes a series of reconfigurations (in the textual and narrative structure and in the concept of authorship). [For an interesting article on the growth of authorship, see here].
Second: let us not stop there (again, this is what I meant regarding the philosophy videogame) by not simply assimilating the new media as glorified, ‘interactive books’, but let us try to envision a completely new form of fully philosophical production, which breaks away from the written structure. What do philosophers do? They write. This could change. [Yet, this is the hard bit: what could that be? Before I get accused of trolling I admit that I have no positive idea yet. Still, the philosophy videogame path is a very good way to start the exploration].
Third: the medium used for philosophical discussion is an actor which shapes the discussion itself. This is the point which Levi made as well: the blogosphere actively shapes what SR has been and is now. It is only fair for OOP to turn its eyes on itself and recognize the network out of which it arose and through which is developing. More in general, to prioritize the book/article-like form of philosophical production, on the base of its greater flexibility and transparency to the author’s intentions, is to deny the basic Latourian/OOOcal tenet that a multiplicity of silent (but active) non-human actors shape the network, or collective (in this case, SR itself, as a whole) just as the human writers do.
[To go out on a limb, I believe that the link between the first point and the third one is to be found in Ian's work on unit operations].
P.S. – I just saw the wordcount: over 1500 words. Damn!