I have been asked to reflect on blogging by David Hill at Liverpool University as a contribution to a session being run there on ‘Digital Literacies’.
When I wrote for a student newspaper at the University of York, I found that there was limitation on the things which I was and was not allowed to write. Not that the editors were being ‘unreasonable’, but quite simply that they had the perogative to publish (or not publish) certain arguments and as such were operating a powerful control on my writing through their policing of appearance (something akin to Ranciere’s distribution of the sensible). For this reason, I started ‘blogging’ alongside.
But in the beginning it seemed that no-one was really interested in what I had to say and as such blogging appeared to me as a severly narcissistic practice. Why should anyone read my blog? Was I not contributing to an online culture in which everyone had something to say but nobody listened? At first, I saw myself as completely complicit with the maintainence of ‘communicative capitalism’ (see Jodi Dean) and subsequenty that my posts were actually pretty pointless. Indeed, in a digital age twist of Marx’s neglecting of his own manuscripts, I felt my writing was being left “to the gnawing criticism of the mice”.
But encouraged by other academic blogs I kept it alive and now I would argue that blogging is actually quite a progressive thing to do. The opening up of not yet formulated and developing ideas to public criticism (even if, to begin with, this is just friends, family or colleagues) means that web logs and the comments below the line can become vibrant spaces that inform my own thinking. Mostly I post commentary about recent events through my own developing stance and I have so far found that this allows my ideas to become more nuanced and refined via the crticism of others.
Crucially, I have found that blogs also allow for a more in-depth discussion than other social media whose design does not lend itself to this beneficial practice. For instance, the restriction of characters on Twitter means that we are limited to what we can say, and on Facebook I found that the ease of scrolling past a debate meant that shallow contributions from passing ‘friends’ were regularly made (sometimes even purposefully trolling or using the distance of the internet to be overly argumentative). At least, when people visit my blog, I can carefully consider my argument first and then their very action of clicking on my posts entails a suitable level of interest and engagement for a productive conversation.
What I was not prepared for, however, was the unforeseen dispersion of my posts that those interested readers can create. When I attended a talk by Slavoj Zizek at Birkbeck in 2013, someone in the audience asked him about a recent insult from Naom Chomsky (who had labelled him a ‘charlatan’ on US radio). Zizek’s answer was recorded by the backroom broadcasting company and when I got home I transcribed the recording to my blog. My intention of this transcript was only to share this with a few colleagues who I knew were interested in Zizek, but things soon started to get out of control.
I posted the transcript on 15th July and by the 16th July I had had 4,966 views. By the end of July, my blog saw 19,216 views (around 20 times the number of total visitors since I started the blog in March) and, as you can see below, this has completely changed the level of coverage my writing gets.
Months and Years
Average per Day
My transcript was then hyperlinked by a number of other websites (including a Guardian article and the openculture website) and, off the back of this, I found myself implicated in the fight between Zizek and Chomsky. Having read my transcript, Chomsky replied to Zizek as if my post of his impromptu comments were Zizek’s formal reply. In return, Zizek found himself under alot of unanticipated criticism and this led him also to write ‘Some Bewildered Clarifications’ (in which he labelled my post a “non-authorized and not accurate transcription“). This was a shit-storm which I had inadvertently created.
It was ironic that Zizek’s very critique of Chomsky was the latter’s over-reliance on the efficiency of empirical data and yet here he was using my blog-post as a source of academic discussion. But also, I think something can be said about this event in terms of the unanticipated risks of blogging. Once something has been published online, it is difficult to control its trajectory (even if it is quite easy to follow) and this means that, whilst blogging can be useful in terms of reflexive discussion, it should also be remembered that it always has the potential to explode out of the relatively small and controlled arena of your peers.
I don’t think what happened to my transcript was necessarily a bad thing. Not only has it brought increased traffic and awareness to my work, but it also prompted the rather off-hand initial comments of both Chomsky and Zizek to be formulated into a more considered, careful and interesting debate around the merits of theoretical and empirical research. As Zizek himself argues, mistakes can be progressive and misreadings can be productive because they are the vanishing mediators in the furthering of knowledge. Off the back of mistakes further clarifications can be made, but only if they are made in public and are open to criticism. In other words, it may be risky in the short-term, but there are also potential benefits of making public errors on blogs.