Blogging and the return of the repressed

Ear­lier today I was at an OAH round­table on blog­ging as schol­ar­ship. There were a num­ber of dis­tin­guished blog­gers there (Anne Lit­tle;  Ken­neth Owen; Ben­jamin Alpers; John Fea), all of whom blog in very dif­fer­ent styles. The audi­ence was great.

I thought I’d post some of my argu­ment about why blog­ging is valu­able as schol­ar­ship: it boils down to the fact that our notion of schol­ar­ship and “his­tor­i­cal work” is deranged. Not just in the fact that we have, pre­pos­ter­ously, only three real forms, the con­fer­ence paper, the arti­cle, and the book: it’s also that the the style of aca­d­e­mic dis­course is grotesquely psy­cho­log­i­cally conflicted.

I’ve argued before that the way we’re taught to read bears no rela­tion to the way we are taught to write. We are taught to write as if our audi­ence was a learned man of leisure, with ser­vants, and we’re taught to read like sou-chefs gut­ting a fish: quickly, ruth­lessly, under time pres­sure. We are asked to con­struct a form of self punishment–we write for the per­son we wish we could be, and in read­ing destroy that per­son we imagined.

Notice there's no one there

Notice there’s no one there

Don’t take my word for it. You can clearly see this con­flicted self in the con­trast, grow­ing wider every year, between the text of any aca­d­e­mic his­tory and the acknowl­edg­ments. Open any book  of foot­noted aca­d­e­mic his­tory pub­lished in the last two decades, and the text will almost never use the word “I,” almost never men­tion any­thing per­sonal, never describe intel­lec­tual strug­gle or uncer­tainty. The text will aim to erase the author alto­gether, so the argu­ment emerges full grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. But the acknowl­edge­ments! The acknowl­edg­ments are a vir­tual car­ni­val of the self, full of con­fes­sions of doubt, descrip­tions of strug­gle, metaphors of jour­ney and pas­sage and trans­for­ma­tion; yearn­ings and regrets and inti­ma­cies: salutes to com­rades pro­fes­sional and per­sonal, the fallen and the still stand­ing. The acknowl­edge­ments are col­or­ful, per­sonal and self indul­gent: the text is per­son­less and self banishing.

Something’s not right here! I mean, men­tally not right. The divi­sion between the text and the acknowl­edge­ments is as wide or wider than the divi­sion between the way we are taught to write and the way we are taught to read. It is a sign of repressed desires and wishes. Really, from a dis­tance it look like a men­tal illness.

Blog­ging maybe has the poten­tial to rein­te­grate the frag­mented aca­d­e­mic per­son­al­ity. It makes the per­sonal vis­i­ble. It allows for strug­gle; it is the jour­ney towards mean­ing. It allows for an autho­r­ial voice that speaks through itself, instead of through some dis­em­bod­ied imag­ined per­son. It’s embed­ded in com­mu­nity. And it doesn’t involve the vio­lent forms of self-erasure that the acknowl­edg­ments keep prov­ing we want to escape


  • Meredith wrote:

    Word. You might con­sider the role of the index in your analy­sis. I LOVED cre­at­ing my index, and I think it’s the best part of my book. The archi­tec­ture of its orga­ni­za­tion is a dis­til­la­tion of the argu­ment, like ee cum­mings wrote a book report on con­sumerism in the Viet­nam War. The index is the best tool a researcher has for gut­ting a book, and yet not only do we not teach appren­tice his­to­ri­ans how to write one, we usu­ally pay some­one else to do it for us!

  • Yes and you could argue that we’d do bet­ter to end the divide between the index and read­ing, and come up with a form of read­ing that’s less artificial

  • Steve Kantrowitz wrote:

    Spot on. I have long rec­og­nized the gap between my first book (aca­d­e­m­i­cally appro­pri­ate) and its acknowl­edg­ments (adven­tur­ous, per­sonal) but never con­sid­ered this as symp­to­matic of a more gen­eral malaise (or ill­ness!). You’ve given me some­thing seri­ous to chew on.

  • Steve

    Thank you VERY much. As far as I can tell, the mod­ern form of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing rises to dom­i­nance roughly at the same time as the rise of gamey eth­nic types like our­selves. So there’s a dou­ble era­sure tak­ing place: not just the era­sure of the self, but the era­sure of a spe­cific eth­nic or racial self with a spe­cific his­tory and pol­i­tics attached. So Richard Hof­s­tat­der good be described as “a Jew, but not one of those bad Jews” by one of his rec­om­menders, pre­cisely because his eth­nic­ity was so well masked in his writ­ing. It’s there, but you have to know about his back­ground to see it. He’d mas­tered the self-suppressing style

  • Meredith wrote:

    The next ms I review, I am going to sug­gest a gamier, more eth­nic style.

  • Yes! Exactly this! Thank you.

  • Steve Kantrowitz wrote:

    Mike — Yes and yes. In fact, the “adven­tur­ous, per­sonal” dimen­sion of my first book’s acknowl­edg­ments con­sisted of my belated real­iza­tion that my invest­ment in the study of U.S. white supremacy had its roots in my early aware­ness of my father’s (b. 1933) emo­tional con­vic­tion that Jews were not safe, even in Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts. (Don’t make me go find my copy of Auden’s elegy to Freud.)

  • Doug didier wrote:


    Just watched the video of the panel. Open­ing remarks. As a reader, It seems to me to make some sense out if this , i.e. Turn­ing the blog world into some kind of use beyond the daily take, need some struc­ture or stan­dard in the form of meta­data , per­haps XML. Think of it as adding big data dimensions.

    Blog posts would con­tain in addi­tion to hyperlinks..

    Time period or time in his­tory.
    GPS of box or area on earth.
    His­tory subject..

    After blog post is writ­ten.. Work­flow in place to send to cloud.

    Now poten­tial to form doc­u­ment of stuff from my area. Or time period or both.

    Another thought is if you have a blog­post or arti­cle. Check out the Wikipedia entry that might core­spond. And see if some of info could be folded in or referenced.

    Another is google has a ser­vice for food blogs. Blog­ger is accepted based on peers. So now when I search for a recipe, I know it’s been tested etc.. Not some junk from about,com etc..

    Doug didier

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