Continuing the topic of the last post on how to write and place an article: Even though Graham’s original post bugged me when I first read it, and I’d been chewing on it in the back of my mind ever since, it still took writing, finishing and posting my response, then having it in mind while I read and wrote some other things, for me to figure out what was bugging me. It’s this: Graham is right about all of it; and I wish he wasn’t.
Graham’s post describes the world of publication in the nth turning of the post-Gutenberg/Martin Luther revolution. Just as the Pope said, easy publication combined with freedom of individual conscience was a recipe for disintegration, a long slide into personal idiosyncracy and facile partisanship. A billion infallible Popes with a billion personal Jesuses. (I’m collapsing a complex and contradictory history. Nor was there a prior golden age of intellectual harmony – see Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.) And Graham says, jump on in! I’m ventilating my personal take on stuff every chance I get, and so can you!
Well that’s nice, and it certainly makes for a lively variety of intellectual products to choose from. Not that it’s obvious why we would read any of them, since our own opinions are sovereign; but it’s fun to have other kids in the sandbox with us and to pick at our small differences. No surprise that the reading culture consists largely of self-confirmation and superficial rejection. You can write like this all you want: nobody’s going to read you if you don’t serve some purpose of momentary affirmation or strategic demonization. In fact you’ll get read that way whether that’s how you write or not.
Graham’s a very smart man. He understands this all the way, and has drawn the pragmatically right conclusions. He has no illusions that he’s writing for a universal audience — he’s part of a community of like minds, people who have been trained to request his brand by name at the supermarket of ideas; anything beyond that is reception serendipitity, an impulse buy. He doesn’t waste time with unsympathetic readers or ones whose premises are distant enough to require significant labors of translation. He’s selling toasters, if you want lampshades that’s not his department.
In his new book (I’m holding out for the final version, this pre-pub snippet is courtesy of Frames/Sing) Graham calls the object-products of our intellection “black boxes,” as I understand it not just in reference to a culture of thin and idiosyncratic reading but to a more final sealing and receding of objects from each other:
Black boxes face two primary and opposite dangers: too much attention from other actants, or too little. When a black box receives too little attention, it is simply ignored. This is actually the fate of most of the objects in the world. We are surrounded by trillions of actants at any given moment, and overlook the vast majority of useless flies and beetles that swarm amidst our more treasured objects. Most patents are for inventions that never catch on in the marketplace, or are never even built. Most novels and scholarly articles go entirely unread: not criticized, but simply overlooked. Black boxes go nowhere if they fail to become obligatory points of passage for other entities. The second danger for black boxes is the opposite one—that of gaining too much interest in the form of skepticism and scrutiny. (Prince of Networks, unpublished PDF, 45)
This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?
There’s nothing like gulags or cultural revolutions at stake in Graham’s work, but he accepts as a fact things about how we think and relate to each other I’d prefer to keep problematic. More to the point here, Graham identifies the central dilemma of highly-enabled personal expression: when everyone gets their say on whatever grounds they happen upon (which are then hidden inside a black box), the market is flooded with product and reception becomes a permanent clearance sale.
Of course we can let the market take care of this. Crap will find its pricepoint. But I can’t help thinking about the anxiety created by the inflation of publication requirements for academic employment in this environment (publish or perish), or the time, money and headspace I’ve wasted reading well-marketed crap pumped into the void of substantive standards described by Graham in his post. Don’t be anxious, he says, you can just pump out some crap! Which responds kindly to the first problem at the expense of the second.
I do think Graham describes a kind of occasional writing that’s much better suited to the blog medium than to formal publication. There should be a place for flapping our gums. But somewhere between that and brutal exclusionary dogmatism there has to be a place for thorough work according to standards; standards with some power to enforce quality even at the expense of quantity, and therefore standards that have some power to compel serious people’s attention, so that their products “become obligatory points of passage for other entities.”
I note in posting that kvond has just now made some similar points in a comment on the last post.