Blogging and the Van Meegeren Syndrome

It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you. Without a strong rhyme to step to. Well, I’ve been teaching again after a semester’s sabbatical and working on a biggish piece of offline writing, so that’s been occupying my mind. Excuses, excuses.

This was my first sabbatical ever. I can say confidently that I’m in favor of them. The only downside is that, when you return, everyone asks you what you did, and when you tell them you suddenly feel self-conscious of how paltry your accomplishments sound when you try to count them up.

Me: Well, uh, I . . . read a lot and had a lot of . . .  thoughts . . . and . . . [more confidently] I blogged a lot!

Colleague: [Silence]

Hey, I wrote a lot of offline stuff too, OK? But I certainly used my freedom to spend a lot more time than usual writing for Dial M. I regret nothing! I still feel a bit sheepish, though, sticking up for my online stuff when I’m talking to senior colleagues. I notice that younger academics don’t really need to be convinced that blog writing can be a legitimate form of intellectual work, though. One student of mine suggested that there might be some kind of generation gap between those who remember a world without an internet (my age and older) and those for whom there has never not been an internet. Interesting thought.

One of my fellow musicologists recently suggested to me that there is one objection to academic blogging that I had not yet addressed in my recent series of posts on the subject. It’s not just a question of what kind of work it represents, but also how much. Academics are familiar with what it takes to push an article through peer review: they have a rough idea of how much time will be spend researching, writing, waiting for the thumbs-up or -down, responding to peer review comments, rewriting, editing, swallowing anger, etc. But academics can’t look at an online essay and make the same calculations. We don’t know whether this is real work because we can’t tell what work went into it.

We all know that there are countless peer-reviewed journal articles entirely bereft of style, originality, intelligence, or a point. Academics reading this post can supply their own favorite examples. These are the box-checking, CV-padding, sand-flavored, paint-by-numbers wads of bumf that even their own authors secretly despise. But no matter how lame a published article is, it does represent a certain recognizable minimum of work.

Now compare something like that to an essay by a really good blogger — for example, the philosopher and culture critic Steven Shaviro. Read his (relatively) recent essay-review on Mark Abel’s Groove. It’s better-written than most things you will see in a specialist music-academic journal. Shaviro’s explanation of Adorno’s understanding of meter and time in both Western art music and groove music is remarkably clear, and his discussion of various philosophical conceptions of time manages the trick of joining a conversation already in progress while unobtrusively catching you up on it. As a critic he is fair-minded and has an impressive catholicity of cultural reference. This is scholarly/intellectual writing with style, originality, learning, and above all ideas — lots of them. His in-passing mention of Western art music isn’t perfect, but small gaffes are unavoidable for someone who is writing about something outside his academic specialty. And surely one of the things we value about blogging and other kinds of online writing is that it makes it easier for scholars to transgress disciplinary boundaries at will — indeed, it positively encourages them to do so.

My point is, I would rather have a single online essay by Shaviro — say, this brisk and entirely deserved beatdown of Greil Marcus — than a whole shelf of crap musicology. Essays like this contribute more to my thinking than any amount of peer-reviewed time-serving. If someone invented a device that, like Maat’s scale, could weigh the worth of a piece of intellectual writing, the best online essays would outweigh entire monographs.

But a certain kind of mind can’t take such essays seriously because we don’t know how long they took to write.

My colleague told me a story about some fool asking Picasso how long it took him to draw something, clearly implying a criticism along the lines of “my kid could do that.” Picasso’s answer was that it took him his whole life to learn how to do that.

For reasons I will explain shortly, I think it’s a bit beside the point to ask how hard it is was to write something. But that does seem like a question people ask. I think it has to do with more than just blogging: it registers a unease about technology more generally. If, as Freud said, our technologies make us into “prosthetic gods,” then we have to wonder how god-like we would be if we dropped our technological extensions and tried our strength against the world unaided. It’s a trope in action movies for the hero and his honorable adversary to drop their weapons and fight bare-handed; the villain is the one who hides behind his weapons. Similarly, internet technology might confer an unfair advantage to the scholar released from the drudgeries of the peer-review process.

Glenn Gould encountered similar objections to his argument that studio recordings are superior to live performances. Classical music culture has always mistrusted recordings because (it believes) the art of performance lies in the performer’s grappling with the highest demands of art, nakedly and without mediation, before an audience. Edits and overdubs let a player sound better on record than he would on stage, and to classical audiences this seems like a kind of fraud.

Gould completely rejected this view: he didn’t believe that a happenstance in a performer’s biography, the “release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline,” should determine how a piece of music sounds. For Gould, what is essential to a musical work is not any contingent, time-bound aspect — the way the composer notated it, or the instruments for which it is written, or even, to some degree, the notes on the page. In a sense, even the composer is a mere contingency. What is most real in a work, and what commands the performer’s attention, is an idea, an idea of which the score is an imperfect approximation and for which the composer is only a sort of mouthpiece. To Gould, the performer’s duty to illuminate the idea trumps fidelity to the score, which explains why Gould was so willing to inflict insane tempos on the music he played, deploy multitrack “acoustic choreography,” or in some cases to rewrite passages in order to bring out what he considered their underlying structure. He always had a point to make, and he did whatever would allow him to make that point.

From Gould’s perspective, then, who cares if the recording falsifies what a performer is able to do? The performer matters only insofar as he can furnish an interpretation that clarifies an idea latent in the music. And if that’s the real point of a performance, then anything that helps it along is fair game. So why wouldn’t you use tape splices, multitrack mixing of differently-placed microphones, and all the tricks of the studio trade?

Classical listeners never stopped grousing about how a recording can make someone “sound better than they really are,” though. Gould countered them with the example of Hans Van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger whose imitation Vermeers were convincing enough for him to be prosecuted for selling one of them to the Nazis during World War II — and when he revealed that he had faked them, he was promptly charged with fraud. When the authorities believed that Van Meegeren’s Vermeers were authentic, they were outraged that he had sold off his nation’s precious cultural heritage; when he revealed that they were fake, the same paintings were suddenly declared worthless. Which suggests that while we might say we love an artwork for what it means to us, what we really care about is who made it. We care about the facts of its origins and the contingencies of its history, not how it looks or sounds in itself — or, in Ramsey Dukes’s terms, what it is, not what it does.

Gould cared only about what an artwork does. If he could create the artistic effect he was after by cutting together 2000 splices of each separate note in a Bach invention played with the eraser end of a pencil, he would have done it. If his aims had been served by getting a machine to play the music for him, he would have done that. (He was a big fan of Switched-On Bach, by the way.) A record buyer might care about the story of how a particular collection of sounds ends up on a particular record, but to Gould all such stories were irrelevant.* If the sounds are good, who cares how they got there?**

It’s probably true that a lot of academics don’t take blogging seriously because they can’t tell if the writer is really doing something hard and academic. Perhaps the blog medium makes it only seem as if the ideas in an online essay are substantial. We can’t know unless we see them on stage — that is, in a proper academic journal.

Remember Steven Shaviro’s review of Groove by Mark Abel? Well surprise, that was a peer-reviewed journal article. Do you feel different about it now? Do you feel a little twinge of relief in some corner of your soul because the world has turned right-side-up again and you can reconcile your impression of the essay’s contents with what you now know of its provenance? Or are you disappointed that my Exhibit A for the intellectual worth of blogging turns out to be a sham?

Actually, no, I’m messing with you, it really is a blog post.

Or is it? Maybe I’m still messing with you. Can you tell what it really is just from reading it? If you don’t know what it is, does this affect the value you assign it?

What matters to me is what a piece of writing does, not what it is. If a blog post has a good idea and a peer-reviewed article doesn’t, I’ll take the blog post every time. For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and insofar as some of my fellow-scholars care more about where the pudding came from — whether it’s a prestigious and respectable pudding — I think their intellectual values are skewed.

I know that some venues are more prestigious than others, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about such things. I also think that scholars have to pay their dues and take their lumps in the peer-review system; it’s not a perfect system, but it actually functions pretty well, all things considered. And most blogs are crap, though you didn’t need me to tell you that.

All I’m saying is, be willing to rely on your own taste and intelligence to tell you what counts. It’s one-sided and wrong-headed to say that the peer-review system is irredeemably broken and that self-publishing on the internet is where it’s at. It’s likewise wrong to say that viable intellectual work can only be done within the conventions of academic publishing. The trick is to hang out at the point where these two systems meet and throw up interference patterns. It’s the space between them that’s the place to be, grooving off the energy of their confrontation.

*Or at least that’s what he said. In trying to make their arguments perfectly consistent, intellectuals always seem to take them to ludicrous and totalizing extremes, and Gould was no exception. I doubt his actual practice was anything nearly so radical as the ideas by which he justified his practice. And in any event I don’t hold with Gould’s idealist notion of music — I’m a fan of what Gould despised as “non-take-twoness,” myself. But I think he was onto something with what he called “the Van Meegeren Syndrome.”

**I draw the line at plagiarism, though. If the words on your site are good but they’re not your words (and you say they are), then I do very much care how they got there.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Blogging and the Van Meegeren Syndrome

  1. David A. Powers says:

    This post makes me wonder how anybody in academia ever does any real innovative research at all!
    One thing that I would note: from a philosophical standpoint, I don’t think that judging a work by its origins is a question of what something is, versus what something does. Rather, those who make such judgments are simply falling victim to the genetic logical fallacy, and thus we can rule out that line of thinking as irrelevant from the start. Indeed, I would suggest that academics who are more interested in the origin of scholarly work than its content may be suffering from a personality flaw, caused by jealousy and resentment.
    Finally, regarding the musical examples: aren’t academic papers more like recordings, while blog posts are closer to live performances?

  2. I now see a flip-side to the recordings-are-better-than-one-person-could-ever-be argument. However “good” they are, recordings are a different product; they cannot possess the electricity and risk of a live performance, and must be understood as a different commodity. What is more, I now have seen plenty of people play *better than they actually are* because of esprit de corps in their large ensemble, or owing to the wonderful “It’s a mystery!” principle (Geoffrey Rush from *Shakespeare in Love*).

    But about blogs and writing, or “writing”? I see blogs more as journalism without permission. I can’t write op-eds, or even publish letters to the editor, without someone’s approval—approval of my employment at a paper of magazine, or approval of what I’ve written, etc. Blogs democritize the process; I can write about what I feel to be important without asking permission. As you state above, Phil, this does not replace publication in peer-reviewed journals, or books from major university presses; it is something else, something with a different value (the rapid-response aspect is important, I think), but also something that cannot be taken as an equivalent. Perhaps the High Old Ones of our discipline (I’ve been a full prof since the early aughts; is that me?) tend to imagine that we should only be striving after more and MORE juried publications and books from The Right Presses, but eff ’em. Those same people might well take pre-concert lectures and program notes seriously, but not blogs, which really makes no sense, given the Wider Audience aspect to blogging. (And that’s where your game with Shaviro hit a banana peel—he was explaining to much for his piece to have been from specialist journal.) There is nothing wrong with being Of Your Generation (I think of my students, patiently and good-humoredly but still exchanging quick smiles saying “now, Dr. Bellman, if you’ll click on the apple icon, then you can…” when the technology befuddles me in class), but it is silly unto pernicious to act as if one’s own value system is the only one the Academy has ever honored. It is undeniable that for a long time, only the very top top top people published, and then maybe an article or two at the mature part of a career, because up to that point they were teaching: hosting civil gatherings with the bright young men (yes, MEN) who were their students at elite institutions, being a part of institutional life, etc. “Discussing ideas with students” was a defensible professional activity at one time, part of the duties of your *caste*, the professoriate. I would not argue in favor of that kind of self-selecting “seasoned scholar” or “discerning audience” crap—people have an awful lot to say, however imperfectly, when they’re young and hot. I would not want to wait for decades to dull the edge of such voices.

    Which returns us to blogs. Choose what to read, what is dreck and what is worthwhile, and be fooled a few times. That’s no different from the golden age (so to speak) of yellow journalism, and the ease of rushing glop out into printed availability, wherein it was up to the (often low-information-type) reader to separate wheat from chaff. Some white-supremacist sub-insect can blog, sure. But there are blogs by Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, and there is no shortage of juried stuff from those gentlemen. Better they should be writing for specialists only?

    I think not. And to evaluate the value of a blog—here’s the secret!—you have to read it. It should not be a replacement for peer-reviewed stuff; it should aim at a broader audience, given that anyone who walks into a public library has access. Personal rants are a temptation; responsible pieces that seek to share expertise with a wider audience rarer but (in my opinion) more valuable.

    All the dishes must be kept spinning in the air—I suppose that’s the take-away. Teaching, service, and professional activity, which properly includes writing for different audiences. Click-publish blogposts are not the same as peer-reviewed journal articles and books, no. But dismally dull worklists and thematic catalogues of forgotten composers (no names offered, but I know of such cases) cannot really be considered professional activity, or teaching, or even service. Most of all, they cannot be considered the equivalent of relevant, to-the-point blogposts, whatever one’s “values” are.

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