Feeling Ordinary: Blogging[1] as conversational scholarship

Melissa Gregg

Introduction

Can academic work ever be considered ‘ordinary’ given the history of privilege behind it? Cultural studies has spent many years establishing ‘ordinariness’ as a positive trait in the practices of other people (eg Williams, 1958; Hartley, 1999) yet it has tended to avoid using the concept in relation to the everyday lives of scholars themselves. This may be understandable given the field’s original political aspirations to indict the class-based elitism of academic modes of valuing. Many writers agree that the resources and job security of the academic profession bestow a particular responsibility on cultural studies practitioners (eg. Hall, 1992; Couldry, 1996). If its total renunciation is strategically undesirable, then, it still seems appropriate to contemplate strategies that might ameliorate this taken-for-granted privilege. If Gramsci’s point that ‘we are all intellectuals’ is a cornerstone of cultural studies’ practice, the second dimension of his statement—‘not all men have the function of intellectuals’—must also be remembered. The possible functions contemporary cultural studies’ intellectual practice might serve forms the backdrop for this paper, bearing in mind Gramsci’s wider and more provocative question: ‘is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?’ (Gramsci, 1971, p. 144).

 

It is increasingly clear that new technologies are helping to situate academic labour as a much more banal, if not quite ‘everyday’ practice in a changing university environment.[2] Self-publishing platforms like weblogs are beginning to influence what an academic career can involve—and be seen to involve to an interested public. Blogs have made scholarly work accessible and accountable to a readership outside the academy, an achievement that seems important in the history of cultural studies’ concerns. Indeed, as I want to suggest in this paper, the very kinds of conversations they encourage can be regarded as offering renewed vigour to cultural studies’ anti-elitist and reflexive epistemological project.

 

This article marks the beginning of a series of investigations in which I hope to offer a ‘sympathetic’ account of the opportunities new media technologies provide for intellectual practice. Sympathetic reading asks that the critic resist ‘the temptation to “answer back”’ (Morris, 1988, p. 6) and instead approach cultural texts for their capacity to test the habitual responses of academic training or political position. As Meaghan Morris explains, reading texts sympathetically is ‘to understand them as criticisms of those answers that my feminism might automatically provide’ (ibid.). It forces the critic to question her own assumptions and practices in the process of reading others’. Such concerted tactics are called for at a time when the presumptions emanating from mainstream media coverage of new media technologies seem poised to threaten the present and future use of platforms like weblogs in professional contexts (Collinson and Delaney, 2005). Preferring to focus on the anomie or indeed aspiring celebrity of those who choose to maintain a web presence, the lack of credentials of news pundit bloggers, or the highly charged terrain of copyright, content delivery and intellectual property issues, the subsidised nature of much media commentary is poorly matched to reflect the complexity and subtlety of wider shifts brought with new technologies. The ‘interpellative imperative’ of criticism as a genre[3] seems to have avoided discussion of how practices like blogging fit within a tradition of public intellectualism otherwise mourned (Mitchell and Buettner, 2005). As I want to argue here, it has also overlooked blogging’s role in carrying out cultural studies’ long-standing commitment to scholarship which reaches beyond the limited range of the academic sphere.

 

Professionalism

The institutional constraints on academics have always challenged the objectives of sharing knowledge and fostering conversation with an audience outside the university. As Judith Brett noted in 1991, the bureaucratisation of the university has had ‘profound effects on the writing of academics in the humanities and social sciences’, the clearest of which being that academics now write in order to fulfil the criteria of a carefully managed institution, pushing their writing ‘away from its proper goal – the contribution to culture and society’ (Brett, 1991, p. 516). When Brett asked ‘why so few academics are public intellectuals’, part of her aim was to identify why it is so rare for academics to be good writers, indeed why so many of them are ‘such bad or indifferent writers’ (Brett, 1991, p. 514). Brett’s essay forms part of a sustained period of reflection, in Australia and the United States in particular, lamenting the decline of public intellectual practice on the one hand and the quality of academic writing on the other.[4]

 

In light of these discussions, what remains refreshing about Brett’s article is the way that it articulates the professional pressures which affect the ‘traditional’ intellectual function, creating a shrinking ‘public’ for academic practice:

The preconditions for good discursive prose are relatively simple: a fully imagined audience, a sense of urgency, something interesting and important to say. The biggest problem with most academic writing is achieving the first two. Many academics start out with important and interesting things to say, but very few feel compelled to say them in ways that engage an audience outside their discipline; and in the end this corrodes the importance of what they have to say. (Brett, 1991, p. 514)

 

Brett considers it nearly impossible for academics to provide a public intellectual function in the contemporary university context because it goes ‘against the grain of the job’ (Brett, 1991, p. 515). The problem with academic writing, she says, is that it is writing that ‘never leaves school’ (Brett, 1991, p. 521).

 

It is in this sense that Brett considers cultural studies to be one of a number of intellectual challenges to have emerged from outside the academy that inevitably narrows the audience for its writing upon entry. Like feminism and Marxism before it, cultural studies is another of those social movements ‘in danger of becoming the basis of new careers and so losing their engagement with broad social and political goals’ (Brett, 1991, p. 518; emphasis added). Reading this article today, it’s the ‘and so’ in this particular sentence that holds my interest. It implies that an academic career can only mean a loss of ‘engagement with broad social and political goals’. Insofar as her remarks are directed to the fate of the New Left since the 1960s, Brett claims: ‘The threat of unemployment has kept one-time radicals busy ensuring their futures; academic politics has replaced the broad public politics of their youth’ (Brett, 1991, p. 518).

 

This warning as to the apoliticising effects of professionalism echoes that of another feminist colleague with experience witnessing the trajectory of New Left colleagues. In ‘Politics Now: Anxieties of a Petty-Bourgeois Intellectual’ Morris also reads the period from 1975 to 1985 as a shift from the full-time radicalism to the radical professionalism of the Left (Morris, 1988, p. 177). Kept busy with grant applications and the politic-ing of various institutional matters, the horizon for investment amongst cultural workers is described by Morris as perilously parochial, completely substituting any other form of politics (Morris, 1988, p. 179). For both writers, professionalism brings a necessary end to a certain cherished sense of political engagement.

 

Fledgling at the beginning of one the new careers in cultural studies Brett anticipated, I approach these two descriptions with some trepidation. Not only are they writers whose work has secured my belief in the value of sophisticated and timely scholarship which transcends a purely academic audience (Morris was a freelance journalist without ever having a full time academic job in Australia prior to her move to Hong Kong, while Brett has recently gained a wide cross-over readership with her research on the Liberal Party, see Brett, 2005; 2003). They also represent the important achievement of feminist movements which have ensured that women now have the choice to pursue professional careers.[5] What troubles me about their descriptions now is that for researchers inheriting cultural studies’ legacies today, there has never been a time before radical professionalism, before the strategic thinking required by institutional politics, a time when one might not have spent most of their energy navigating funding bodies. What’s more, many recent graduates have been politicised by their exposure to academic theory, which is to say that for the present generation there has never been a time ‘before’ or ‘after’ theory, as the story usually goes (Eagleton, 2003; Butler et al., 2000). Ruth Barcan described this wonderfully in a keynote address to the What’s Left of Theory? Australian cultural studies conference in Hobart in 2001: ‘theory operated not as the suspect opposite to politics, as it did for many people, but as the very mode of my politicisation’ (Barcan, 2002, p. 344). I can identify as one of those students Barcan describes ‘whose life is transformed unequivocally for the better by their encounter with theory, who looks at the world anew, and who becomes filled with a sense of purpose and energy’ as a result (Barcan, 2002, p. 354). Work in the academy hasn’t been a shift of focus for politics: theoretically and practically, academic politics are the most familiar (if not the only) form I know.

 

Heroics

If I am uncomfortable with the way that the politics of professionalisation have often been described it is because there is a missing narrative to account for the experience of more recent graduates who, having experienced cultural studies teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level, see political opportunities in an academic career. These opportunities seem to me limited, however, by the consistency with which cultural studies’ stated preference for studying ‘the ordinary’ rarely matches the modes of writing typically practiced in the attempt to legitimate such attention. A theoretical understanding of the performative force of writing and the material effects of discourse should make this problematic enough; what makes it worse is when abstract writing for an initiated audience serves merely to reproduce what Eve Sedgwick (2003, p. 108) has called the ‘thinking routines’ of contemporary theory.

 

In her recent book Touching Feeling, Sedgwick mounts a critique of ‘paranoid reading’: what she perceives to be a dominant scholarly preoccupation with exposing residual forms of essentialism, unearthing the unconscious drives and compulsions of an author, or uncovering the oppressive forces of history ‘masquerading under liberal aesthetic guise’ (ibid.). Demonstrating a sensitivity to historical and political shifts I also want to foreground, Sedgwick writes:

Where are all these supposed modern liberal subjects? I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism. Yet these students’ sentient years, unlike the formative years of their teachers, have been spent entirely in a xenophobic Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America where “liberal” is, if anything, a taboo category and where “secular humanism” is routinely treated as a marginal religious sect, while a vast majority of the population claims to engage in direct intercourse with multiple invisible entities such as angels, Satan, and God. (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 140)

 

It is not simply critical mantras that Sedgwick objects to, or the political landscape in the United States, for that matter. She queries the logic of the spatial metaphors common in contemporary research practice—the habitual speech that accompanies intellectual positioning:

Beneath and behind are hard enough to let go of; what has been even more difficult is to get a little distance from beyond, in particular the bossy gesture of “calling for” an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate. (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 8)

It is precisely this sense of an avant-garde or well-placed lone critic ‘calling for’ changes in others’ political priorities that I take the ‘counter-heroics’ of this special issue’s title to mean. If it in any way resembles the ‘sense of urgency’ that Brett demands of public intellectual practice, it does so to the extent that the urgency is both generic and manufactured.

 

Sedgwick’s descriptions may indeed be strategic caricatures, as Clare Hemmings (2005) has recently argued. Yet I want to suggest cultural studies’ unfinished legacy includes abandoning the styles of academic practice that provide the substance of their rhetorical force. For cultural studies academics to stake their politics on providing readings for others’ benefit, or making plain the obviousness of others’ oppression, seems ill-fitting the mobilising premises of the field. As Sedgwick argues, such objectives depend ‘on an infinite reservoir of naïveté in those who make up the audience’ for our work as scholars: 

What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic, or even violent?... How television-starved would someone have to be to find it shocking that ideologies contradict themselves, that simulacra don’t have originals, or that gender representations are artificial?... Some exposes, some demystifications, some bearings of witness do have great effectual force (though often of an unanticipated kind). Many that are just as true and convincing have none at all however, and as long as that is so, we must admit that the efficacy and directionality of such acts reside somewhere else than in their relation to knowledge per se. (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 141)

As Toby Miller and Alec McHoul have argued (1998), cultural studies scholarship has enough work cut out for it producing adequate accounts of actually existing ‘everyday’ practices to be satisfied with merely speculating about subversive pleasures. A more modest, inquisitive, even fallible speaking position would only help in the endeavour to discover trends that lie outside pre-given theoretical rubrics.

 

Resisting the resistance ritual

The ritualised form of scholarship Sedgwick points to is only understandable given the current expectation that academics publish regularly in refereed journals to secure their career and professional advancement. Morris has noted that this model which determines institutional funding as well as individual standing has developed in tandem with the workload of today’s ‘hyper-busy’ academics:

To engage in it, we do not need to be involved at the time in serious ethnographic or textual study, resource- and time-consuming as these are, and we do not need to expect any kind of change to follow our intervention. It is entirely possible to contribute to such a debate by referring only to a series of other contributions, each playing variations on already familiar and firmly held positions. (Morris, 2000, p. 28)

 

It’s this form of debate that Brett surely had in mind in her 1991 article. It also epitomises the effects of professionalism so abhorrent to Edward Said in the series of lectures he delivered on the role of the intellectual in the early 1990s. Said’s formidable description of the intellectual’s function was to:

raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. (Said, 1994, p. 11)

Said urged that a spirit of amateurism must transform professional routines ‘into something much more lively and radical’ so that ‘instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts’ (Said, 1994, p. 83). Said denounced professionalism on the basis that it viewed intellectual work as:

something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five and with one eye on the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behaviour—not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and “objective.” (Said, 1994, p. 74)

Of course what’s complicated about this formulation for those pursuing careers in cultural studies is that radicalism is itself a professional expectation of our chosen field. Cultural studies asks that we make a career out of ‘rocking the boat’. To refuse its dominant forms of performance and endeavour is also to admit suspicion of the innate progressivism of its main theoretical influences. Or as Sedgwick puts it, rather more stylishly:

Comes the revolution, Comrade, you’ll be tickled pink by those deconstructive jokes; you’ll faint from ennui every minute you’re not smashing the state apparatus; you’ll definitely want hot sex twenty to thirty times a day. You’ll be mournful and militant. You’ll never want to tell Deleuze and Guattari, “Not tonight, dears, I have a headache.” (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 146)

This more recent regime of political ‘cool’ appearing in tandem with cultural studies’ ongoing professionalisation resembles the tightly policed regime of thought and behaviour Morris  identifies as the ‘lifestyle Leftism’ of the 70s and 80s (Morris, 1988, pp. 173-186). Yet the difficulty it poses for intellectual work is that commonsense assumptions limit the acuity of the critical methods available to appreciate emerging everyday practices. In Sedgwick’s reading, the ‘ethical urgency’ of terms like hegemony and subversion, or their counterparts, repression and liberation, evacuates any critical reflection of their original theoretical formulation. The correct codification of a cultural object or practice becomes the endpoint of an analysis, meaning that the rich mid-ranges of agency become extremely hard to gauge in scholarly terms. From a critical as well as a political standpoint this can only be disturbing, given that it’s ‘the middle ranges of agency that offer space for effectual creativity and change’ (Sedgwick, 2003, p. 13).

 

Blogging as conversational scholarship

It is precisely the ‘mid-range’ between disciplinary insularism and public intellectual practice that best characterises blogging. Instead of continuing the trend of ‘calling for’ a shift in others’ practices, I want to use the following discussion of blogging to highlight ways in which elements of cultural studies’ political aspirations can be adjusted to new historical contexts. I am not suggesting blogs are an example of ‘the way forward’ for public intellectual practice (see Dunlop, 2003), nor do I think that they should be seen as a satisfactory complement to the very real pressures of outcomes-driven academic publishing. Here I seek merely to provide an account of their productive possibilities at a time when a degree of hyperbole and assumption currently shrouds—and risks—their varied uses.

 

In light of recent controversy—especially following anonymous revelations in The Chronicle of Higher Education that some hiring committees at US universities may discriminate against bloggers (see Tribble, 2005a; 2005b; and the many responses in the discussion fora)—it seems odd that blogging suffers such persecution as a form of extra-curricular intellectual engagement. What I will call the ‘conversational scholarship’ it gives rise to can be seen to follow a tradition that includes independent and small press publishing, reading groups, salons and even café culture; that is, before the real estate boom and rising standards of living demanded that urban-based students work full time to support their study, severely limiting other forms of recreational intellectual practice. The issue seems to be with the technology itself: the simultaneously anonymous and public nature of blogging as well as the instant feedback the software make possible. Indeed, the virulence that typifies many blog debates, and which is often the cause for their scorn, arises from a lack of common ground and/or vocabulary. Blogs reveal in a very overt way how regularly writing fails to communicate intention. They also indicate how much distance a tertiary education can put between people trying to engage in a conversation.

 

Software contributes to blogging dynamics in a further notable way. Archives memorialise the passion of intellectual debate as it happens. The temporality involved in blogging’s ‘call and response’ dynamic is faster and more immediate than previous forms of intellectual writing and publishing. In this sense, the disdain many academics feel towards blogging[6] can be understood at least partly in terms of the way it records the vicissitudes and vulnerability of intellectual practice. At the very least, blogging is useful for the way that it offers a chance to reflect upon which aspects of their ordinary, everyday practice scholars prefer the public to see.

 

Yet this very capacity to offer a platform for dialogue between writer and reader is also the political significance of weblogs.[7] While blogs are generally associated with a single author, the role of the writer quite often consists of instigator and provocateur in the sense Said endorses. This is a noticeable move away from any necessary association between author and authority. Granted, it is hard to generalise too much here: the objectives of bloggers are as diverse as the people who write them. Yet I would venture that the amount of notoriety individual bloggers seek to generate in the mainstream media and in sections of the ‘blogosphere’ often relates to the degree to which they do maintain a belief in the notion of author-as-authority. This is only to be expected from those with an investment in maintaining, or gaining credibility in order to contribute to a broadcast model of communication (which I would further suggest encapsulates the present love/hate relationship between many punditry bloggers and journalists). Blogs reveal the mind of the critic as impressionable and open to persuasion, for the writer is rarely able to sustain the confidence and assurance of a fixed position. Such a function contrasts with conventional modes of academic performance premised on expertise and mastery. It is to admit the hesitancy involved in the difficult task of thinking about the world.

 

For cultural studies, the significant potential to be seen in blogging—in line with the romantic new media ethos that ‘information wants to be free’—is that knowledge loses any sense of being something to be guarded. It instead becomes something to be facilitated, discussed and improved. Blogs can create an economy of generosity and gift at the expense of jealousy and possessiveness (cf Williams, 1958). They encourage collaboration as much as competition. The participatory nature of writing, response and counter-argument on blogs allows for ongoing debate, critical refinement and thinking-in-process. In this they illustrate very well that version of cultural studies practice described by Stuart Hall, which is ‘to work with our always inadequate theories to help move understanding “a little further on down the road”’ (Daryl Slack, 1996, p. 113).

 

In this sense, what is rarely acknowledged about blogging is how much it contributes to and mirrors traditional scholarly practice rather than threatening it. One of the main reasons graduate students have taken them up with such fervour is that blogs offer solidarity out of isolation, especially on long projects. They create the conditions for collegiality, brainstorming and frank, fast feedback while also generating and maintaining interest, enthusiasm and motivation. Even the best supervision in the most convivial university department cannot offer this kind of support on a regular basis. The persistence with which established academics condemn blogging as a distraction preventing graduate students from timely completion and participation in their desired career does a disservice to the many instances whereby blogs are utilised as a sophisticated research tool. It also wilfully ignores the wider economic and political circumstances making the potential for a tenured academic career increasingly unlikely for a new generation of graduates (Ross, 2004; Gregg, 2006b).

 

In terms of the linguistic apartheid for which Brett chastises academics, blogs are also one of the most convenient and efficient tools for improving writing skills. Blogging forces the writer to make every word count, to be as clear as possible in getting a message across. Unlike the preconditions for good writing in Brett’s description, it is impossible to know precisely who your audience is as a blogger. Its sheer public-ness—the very unpredictability of audience—is what creates a sense of immediacy and urgency.[8]

 

For all the positive tendencies I have just noted however, blogging can also be a volatile, archly personal and estranging practice. To be confronted by the opinions of others who share little concern for or understanding of your work is a discomforting and chastening experience. It is the quickest way to have any pretensions about academic work deflated. Then again, this is not so very unlike the process of peer review, or giving a conference paper. If anything, the explosiveness of blogging flame wars serves to indicate the façade of much ‘polite’ academic discourse. A blog readership may not always share a referee’s investment in a discipline or a profession, but a willingness to offer opinion is evidence that a particular topic has resonance beyond academic niceties.

 

Outside the comfort zone: Feeling ordinary in the blogosphere

In line with the participatory ethic for cultural studies we are advocating in this issue, I want now to offer a brief account of the ways my own theoretical presumptions have been tested and invigorated by blogging over the last two years. The main point I want to underline is the manner in which blogging provokes acute recognition of what may otherwise remain ‘mere’ theoretical tenets in one’s academic work—a point which adds to the benefits of Morris’s sympathetic criticism I’ve already outlined. For instance, since starting my blog I’ve become a lot more conscious of my status as:

a)      an interchangeable persona available for others’ use: despite my knowledge of postmodern theories of identity fabrication and simulacra I never expected someone would use my blog for a personal vendetta, writing under my name and also using the names of other regular contributors to disrupt the dynamics of the blog and seek to expose me as some kind of fraud;

b)      a woman (assumed to be single): despite my feminist training I never seriously thought that meeting people offline in public, group events would lead to volatile situations with readers assuming intimacy and ‘entitlement’ to friendship because of shared interests online. Even though I disagree with the moralising agenda attached to alarmist descriptions of new media I now find myself holding a similar position, i.e. that even the most stable online personas can’t be trusted. For me, the cliché has been proven;

c)      an academic: despite being regarded as an ‘early career researcher’ in a university context I’ve been told by readers that what I write on my blog is too academic, too theoretical or too jargon-y and therefore not fitting the ‘spirit’ of blogging. Others who regard my blog as academic assume that when I write it signifies my fully formed intellectual position on something and that I seek to argue the point I allegedly made. Still others think that because I am an academic I will obviously be interested in hearing the entire history of thought behind any issue raised, because anything less would be unscholarly. This possibly relates to:

d)      a young, female academic in a particular city of Australia: stereotypes about the place I currently live seem to lead some people to think I am therefore more open to guidance or correction from others who blog from less peripheral/parochial locations, or (of equal offence) that I deserve encouragement and support for the same reasons;

e)      as an Australian feminist: blogging has drawn my attention to the specificity of my training in Gender Studies in Australia rather than Women’s Studies or some of the more polemical versions of liberal or radical feminism. The key feminist blogs based in the United States are regularly engaged in the intricacies of legal rulings (namely the ongoing fate of Roe vs. Wade). Otherwise, their attention is usually focused on issues of women’s under-representation on blogrolls, conferences, speaking circuits, linking practices between blogs and the like. This means I have had to turn to different disciplines, for instance rhetoric and political science, to find allies for the kind of work I do;

f)        as a person identified with cultural studies: the majority of research blogs are still new media- or technology-industry specific, so it’s hard to find readers with a similar disciplinary background. On the other hand, I’ve had cultural studies professors find my blog and engage with my ideas at length—feedback I would never have had received otherwise. In terms of ‘political’ cool in the blogosphere however, cultural studies is often something of a punching bag, which has meant my blog has sometimes been used as a location for debating cultural studies’ politics regardless of whether I describe my own work as political;

g)      as a white, middle-class, able bodied, urban-based professional: these forms of cultural capital to my mind define both the possibilities and the limits of blogging’s audience reach at present, and while I have expressed my ambivalence towards professional academic practice as a career choice on a number of occasions, my lack of overtly identity-based or marginal politics means that I often suffer credibility problems as an individual.

 

While it is clearly limited by its subjectivity, what I think this list helps to illustrate is that despite my training in feminism and cultural studies, and hence my heightened theoretical understanding of the ways my identity influences my perspective on the world, having a blog has made me increasingly conscious of the multi-faceted ways these identities play out in apparently banal, everyday encounters. Perhaps it was an oversight to have assumed these identities would not be particularly relevant to the practice of my blogging; what I wonder instead is the extent to which even the most self-reflexive of disciplines like cultural studies regularly strips identity characteristics from its dominant genres in order to accord itself scholarly status. My ability to comment as a scholar on the practice of blogging has been to some extent jeopardised by my participation in the practice itself. At the same time, my understanding of both blogging and cultural theory has improved considerably during this same process. Blogging makes me aware of my gender, race, sexuality, class, geographical location and education level with a regularity that my typical daily encounters as an academic simply do not.

The Will to Connect

While the analysis I have just offered seems to me an important justification for blogging, I have yet to mention the most important reason I will continue to do so beyond the time frame of my research. In Brett’s description from earlier, there is an implicit distinction between academics who consider themselves to be writers and those who consider writing to be a part of the job they do. In the face of persistent media and colloquial opinion which categorises blogging as variously self-serving, self-aggrandising or self-delusional, this distinction is useful to makes sense of what I want to call the ‘will to blog’. As bell hooks has also argued so eloquently:

All academics write but not all see themselves as writers. Writing to fulfil professional career expectations is not the same as writing that emerges as the fulfilment of a yearning to work with words when there is no clear benefit or reward, when it is the experience of writing that matters. (hooks, 1999, p. 37)

As a writer, I have a keen desire to share and discuss ideas with others. Academic forms of evaluation and publication are often unsatisfying for me precisely because they fail to reach an audience for whom I would also like to write. Given the current expectations of the academic profession however, there appears little leeway for alternative forms of publishing and intellectual practice. The ‘publish or perish’ dictum has been particularly effective in narrowing the ambitions many academics hold for their writing to the extent that a ‘yearning to work with words when there is no clear benefit’ is regularly met with disbelief, if not also disapproval, from colleagues.

 

My understanding of cultural studies has always been that it emerges from a ‘will to connect’ with others, or in the words of Richard Hoggart, ‘only connect’ (Hoggart, 1972). Blogging offers an exciting new avenue for academics and non-academics alike to ‘speak to each other’ (Hoggart, 1970a; 1970b). To blog is to react to the limited range of conversations otherwise available to us in a heavily compartmentalised neo-liberal culture, to share thoughts, ideas and dreams with those whose paths we may not cross in everyday routines.

Blogs and counter-professionalism

If we live in an era when academic practice entails radical professionalism, blogs are a way to make contact with an audience both within and outside the narrow field of a discipline. Instead of documenting heroic missions conducted on others’ behalf, blogs foster conversational scholarship by actively seeking the voices of others. Blogs are a modest political tool in that they can help overturn the hierarchies of speech traditionally securing academic privilege. They are a way to be reflexive about the privileges of an institutional position in the sense that Couldry describes:

if you take it as axiomatic that discursive resources are unequally distributed, then for academics to use their discursive resources to reveal the places where others are speaking may sometimes help those others to be heard. (Couldry, 1996, p. 324)

 

A career in cultural studies may meet its professional obligations as well as great success by writing regularly about the ordinary and/or subversive practices of others. But to do so not only maintains the observer-subject, critic-amateur distinction that mirrors wider forms of segregation and binary thinking that are manifest in our society (Morris, 1992), it also proves that Brett’s fears about cultural studies’ political goals were well founded. A politics which includes academic conventions in its sights disrupts cultural criticism’s ritualistic potential by bringing different voices into a broader conversation. Blogs allow us to write in conjunction with non-academic ‘peers’ and ‘colleagues’ who not only value and improve our ideas but practice their own rigorous forms of assessment, critique and review.

 

Blogs are counter-heroic in that they expose the life of the academic as banal. They help lay bare the fallacy of the ivory tower scholar secluded from the concerns of the ‘real world’. But blogging remains a liability in a professional environment focused on Tier 1 journals, intellectual property and the tyranny of excellence. As a form of counter-professionalism, blogs exhaust our most precious resources as academics: good ideas and spare time. And this is crux of the dilemma. Despite my commitment to scholarly ideals, I am equally committed to any practice that makes learning, thinking and writing feel ordinary as well as important. In this article my only concern has been that such an objective, while apparently fitting the original impulse of cultural studies, may no longer be extraordinary enough to warrant much attention.

 

 

 

 



 

References

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Endnotes

[1] For the purposes of this paper I refer to blogging in general despite there being many distinctions in online journal practice. At least part of my motivation in avoiding mention of journaling as opposed to blogging is to discuss issues often downplayed in the gender and age characteristics afforded to each (see Gregg, 2006a).

[2] My use of ‘ordinariness’ and ‘everyday’ are residues of the original context for this paper, the CSAA conference Everyday Transformations: The Twenty-First Century Quotidian, Murdoch University, Perth, December 2004.

[3] For specific discussion of the interpellative strategies of new media commentary see Cohen (this issue). Graham Meikle (2002) describes a similar process of ‘backing in to the future’ in his Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet.

[4] For an overview of the former, see Culler and Lamb (2003). For a range of views on the public intellectual in an Australian context, see Bartoloni, Lynch and Kendal (1997), Dessaix (1998) and more recently Carter (2004). The 1994 Cultural Studies Association of Australia conference held at the University of Technology, Sydney also had the theme ‘Intellectuals and Communities’.

[5] Bruce Robbins (1993) notes that this is an achievement typically overlooked in debates over the politics of professionalism.

[6] And, I would add, email list culture.

[7] Tim Dunlop (2003), one of Australia’s most prominent ‘political’ bloggers, argues that ‘blogging has provided at least one of the technical means of dissolving the division between intellectual and citizen.’ His essay is a more extensive engagement with the concerns raised by Brett’s article and the idea of blogging as a public intellectual practice. ‘Rather than being in decline, as it is fashionable to suggest,’ Dunlop claims that blogs show the category of public intellectual to be ‘exploding’.

[8] Comments from readers of this paper have led me to agree that one of the most sobering aspects of blogging regularly is the realisation that one’s audience is insular, restricted and knowable, that the idea of writing into the unknown is one of the great fallacies about everyday blogging. However, I would still want to accord a degree of power to the silent readers many blogs enjoy, and the importance of this albeit small unknown readership in shaping the urgency of address.