Things are looking pretty slow around here on the eighteenth-century front, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to respond to an interesting talk that Carrie S. passed along to me from the MLA academic blogging panel, courtesy of John Holbo of the Valve. It’s called “Form Follows Function at the Little Magazine”:
I should say at the outset that this blog owes a lot to Holbo and his notion of “book events,” or what we’ve been calling “collaborative readings,” because we at the Long Eighteenth essentially stole the entire format from the Valve for our events. So thanks, John.
I’m sure that others are following suit, too, because the book event has turned out to be a very effective, web-specific format to review books collectively, in real time, often with the encouragement and participation of authors, who are given the opportunity to blog about their own books and respond immediately (OK, almost immediately) to the comments and suggestions offered by specific readers.
This collective review process produces an interestingly open, temporalized, and multiauthored text, closer I think to premodern practices of scribal commentary, glossing, and annotation than more fixed and print-oriented forms of authorship and authority. In the same way that one might go through a manuscript looking for a particular annotator’s comments, I wouldn’t be surprised if connoisseurs of such events would focus upon a particular turn in the conversation, or follow a particular commentator at the expense of the others.
As Holbo points out, moreover, the collective yet temporally concentrated qualities of the book event make it a far more effective way to assess scholarship than the usual individually-authored specialty journal reviews, which are usually produced in isolation from one another, and which rarely aggregate into a sustained discussion of a particular work. (I’m saying this as someone who writes reviews in such journals, and often enjoys writing them, but who has been frustrated by the black hole these kinds of reviews fall into. One always wonders if others, including the author reviewed, are reading or appreciating them in any way.)
As Michael Warner might phrase it, the book event creates and sustains a collective discourse about a book in something resembling a conversational time-frame, so that the divergent positions can inform each other, correct one another, and even build on each other in ways that can help develop a more sophisticated collective interpretation than what any individual reviewer could achieve. In so doing, the book event can help mediate a book for the more general public, and help authors find their specific publics, in ways useful for both sides.
What first got me to thinking about this inextricably collective dimension of web-based events, however, was not any scholarly blog, but my own experiences following political blogs as they criticized the mainstream institutions of the news media. My own experience was crystallized by Bill McKibben in an essay he wrote in the New York Review of Books last April:
When we consider Kos’s own Web site and its numerous links to other blogs, we see something like an expanding hive of communication, a collective intelligence. And the results can be impressive. A writer with the pen name (mouse name) Jerome à Paris, for instance, organized dozens of other Kossacks interested in energy policy to write an energy plan that I find far more comprehensive and thoughtful than anything the think tanks have produced. It’s been read and reshaped by thousands of readers; it will serve as a useful model should the Democrats retake Congress and have the ability to move legislation. The blogs began as purely reactive and bloggers still spend much of their energy responding to the “mainstream media.” But a kind of proto-journalism is emerging, and becoming steadily more sophisticated.
I don’t want to be too “utopian” about this, as I think Holbo sometimes becomes in his interesting piece, because I think the stakes are too high, and I think that the appearance of new technologies can never eliminate the need for better institutions or infrastructures. Tactics can never substitute for strategies. But McKibben’s notion of the “hive” or more negatively, the “blog swarm,” seems a very apt and resonant image of the paradigms of collective intelligence that are emerging right now.
To return to the academic implications of Holbo and McKibben, I think that the biggest issue we need to deal with is how this “collective intelligence” interacts with our need for specialized, or at least a more sophisticated, discourse. To get away from a model of publicized knowledge as “dumbing down,” we need to think hard about the new forms of mediation discussed by Holbo, which I’d link up with the notion that the new publics so constituted need mediators who will continue to educate and inform them, to keep the public’s knowledge up-to-date. One of my favorite models for this kind of mediating work between various publics is Pharyngula, which I think is really exemplary in its ability to address different publics (including students) in its writing.
As a specialist, moreover, I do not doubt that experimental forms like the book event will at least supplement the official reviewing process that takes place in our journals, and that peer review of some kind will have to remain in place. And I, like Holbo, like the idea of experimenting with all sorts of different formats, if only because the ones we currently have seem so inadequate for disseminating our scholarship. But I’d like to see how we can use our experiments in publicity not only to expand our audience, but to see where these newly expanded publics might lead us in terms of our research.
UPDATE: Ellen Moody has her own take on the MLA discussion up on her blog (she wants to know about the significance of pseudonyms) here,
then points us to this Inside HigherEd piece by Scott McLemee, whose Comment section contains further comments from some of the participants and audience members, including our own Carrie S. and Chava, and yes, Tedra/Bitch, PhD.
Is that meta- enough for you?