In my last post, I wrote that I didn’t really think full-on academic writing really works in a blog. In response, commenter Mark wrote the following:
My opinion is that academic writing needs to lighten up, without losing its rigor.
I think that writing can be totally serious, dense, intense, without
being laden with jargon and only for the initiated. I think that
academic writing should take something of blogs’ lightness.
The question is, what is lightness? (besides the way Joe Henderson takes a solo)?
When I started blogging, I thought that the medium’s main benefit to scholars would be a matter of distribution. Your blog could put you in touch with a wider audience than conventional print media, it could get your ideas out faster, and it would enable a kind of virtual symposium, where your colleagues could challenge your ideas and your own work would profit thereby. And this is all true — these are real benefits of blogging. But what I didn’t realize at first is how much the medium shapes your output. Lately, I’ve been thinking more that the real change that blogging brings about in scholarly communication is not a matter of distribution but a matter of style and form. The blog medium encourages the “lightness” that Mark mentions. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter for discussion. I think it is, though I know that many of my non-blogging colleagues will disagree. But before getting into the question of whether lightness is a good thing, it’s worth asking what it is.
Since I don’t want to be taken for a radical technological determinist, I should say at once that there is nothing compulsory about blogging style: some academic blogs consist of posts that are really just chunks of straight-up academic writing. Mark Zobel’s now-vanished pedagogy blog was like that, and Sound and Mind also goes in that direction, as in this review-essay on Carol L. Krumhansl’s Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch. But elsewhere on Sound and Mind — on this post dealing with J. P. Kirnberger’s The Art of Strict Composition, for instance — you get a mode of scholarly exposition that you wouldn’t see in an academic journal. This isn’t only because the post starts by begging indulgence for low blog output (a well-worn incipit of academic blog posts). First of all, about half of the total wordage of the post is quoted material, and while there is a brief introduction saying why the material is being quoted, the quotes are allowed to stand alone, pretty much, and speak for themselves. Second, the context that Kris Shaffer provides for these quotes is personalized — he writes that “this passage has served me well in recent weeks in framing my thoughts and discussion of the theories of David Temperley, Carol Krumhansl, Fred Lerdahl, David Lewin” etc. In other words, the ideas contained here (dealing with a phenomenological exploration of musical perception as a corrective to geometric representations of musical space) are presented as items from an evolving project that is taking place largely “off-camera,” but which can be glimpsed informally on the blog as it evolves. The blogging of the project is about the process, not the product, and about an evolving personal relationship to the material. Blogging is in this sense more “meta” than most forms of academic communication.
The weaker technological-determinist argument is that while you can resolve to use a medium however you want, long-term engagement with any medium will tend to knock the edges off your resolve and shape your pronouncements anyway. You can start off deciding that you’re going to use your blog to post bits of your formal academic writing, but as you do it for longer and develop a relationship to other parts of the blogosphere (the sine qua non of the medium), your style of exposition will tend to reflect your engagement.
I find myself thinking about Marshall McLuhan at moments like this. McLuhan was (and is, for those few who still bother to think about him) notorious for being a bit of a humbug. McLuhan developed ideas through thought-experiments, not arguments — “probes,” he called them — which means that not everything he wrote was intended as truth, exactly. Which means that a lot of what he wrote was frankly BS — except when it wasn’t. Sometimes, you read McLuhan for truth-statements about the media; sometimes, you read McLuhan the way you would read a sci-fi novel, as a way of imagining what the media might be doing to us (cf. William Gibson); sometimes you read McLuhan the way you read Abbie Hoffman, as someone who may have been full of it, but who was full of it in a typically and interestingly 1960s way; and in any given passage, it’s never entirely clear which of these options you should take. One of his ideas I’ve always dismissed as humbug was his distinction of “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media, he says, are those that are high-definition, information-dense, and repel interaction. According to McLuhan, the book is the classic hot medium, because you treat it as a kind of data dump from the author’s brain into yours, and while you might dispute an author’s statements, you are in a basically passive relationship to him. It’s not as if you can argue with him, or re-write the book as you read it — the most you can do is scrawl notes in the margins. (And McLuhan believed that the regimented and uniform appearance of the post-Gutenberg book makes the book an even hotter, less interactive medium). TV, on the other hand, is a cool medium, according to McLuhan. It’s a low-definition medium, literally when McLuhan was writing, and more figuratively even now, because there’s much less in the way of behavioral and cognitive compulsion. You can customize TV to your use much more easily (mute it, change the channel, go out to the kitchen and make a sandwich), and the nature of the broadcast content (generic, episodic) itself invites participation. That’s the argument, anyway. As I said, I never completely bought it.
But the hot/cool distinction kind of works for blog posts, actually. The “four theses on entertainment” post I did the other day is a “hot” piece of writing. It’s not quite right to say that it repelled interaction; after all, I got two splendid responses from Galen Brown and Mark’s above-quoted comment, which in turn inspired this blog post. But it is the kind of writing (dense, high-definition, “hot”) that circumscribes the ways you can profitably interact with it. Galen’s comments were responses in kind — serious, carefully thought-out engagements with my arguments, mapping zones of agreement and disagreement. You don’t get a lot of snark, jokes, off-hand comments, links to funny Youtube clips, etc., in response to this kind of post. (“LOL, ur historicization of disenchantment is teh SUCK111!!!”)
And you also seldom get links for those sorts of posts. I’ve often noticed how it’s the posts that I took most seriously (like this one), the ones that take 90% of my blog-related time, that end up being ignored in the blogopshere, while the ones I spend 5 minutes putting together get the mad blog love. Posts with funny Youtube clips, posts that are weakly point-driven and wander all over the place, posts that mention Bob Dylan, posts that make dumb or unsustainable claims, posts that try to set memes in circulation, posts that are contests or quizzes (e.g., make your own musicological lolcat, make an iPod random playlist) — these will win you links, site hits, comments, and contributions, because they are “cool” in the McLuhanite sense. They’re less “dense,” less “high-definition,” and offer a wider variety of ways you can react to them; they have open pockets, lots of interstitial spaces that others can fill in for themselves. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing (the usual whinge that blogging lowers the level of discourse, etc.), but there’s no question that if academic blogging has a future — if people do it more and more and it starts to have an effect on scholarship as a whole — then I suspect it will have the effect of “cooling down” the discipline. The implications of that are probably best left to another day, since this post has gotten very hot indeed, and rather long.