Blogging Fast and Slow: Being an Account of the Author’s Misadventures in Guest-Blogging, with Some Musings on the Genre’s Pitfalls and Pathological Forms (and Jonah Lehrer)*
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my final OrgTheory guest post. I thought I’d bring my discussion full circle in this one by returning to the general theme with which I began—namely, “reflexivity”—albeit now with some reflections on the blogging genre itself. As my earlier posts have illustrated, sometimes with painful clarity, I’m no blogger by training. To be honest, I don’t even read academic blogs very often. So it was with a certain curiosity that I ventured into this arena over the last couple of months—first, by writing a few entries myself, and second by paying attention to some of the top social science blogs. What did I learn from this? If you’re a longtime academic blogger or blog-reader, some of it might seem obvious to you, but hopefully it will also contain a novel twist, like reading an ethnography about your home country.
In the first place, it’s clear that the “rules” of academic blogging are different from—and sometimes even apparently at loggerheads with—the rules of scholarship. Part of a blog’s appeal, in fact, is that its default style is casual, not formal, and its “temporality” is fast, not slow. If you’re a scholar, blogging seems to free you at least momentarily from some of the constraints of academic discourse, and without forcing you to abandon altogether your scholarly authority. As other people have mentioned on this site, blogging can bring certain payoffs that complement the research enterprise nicely. I’ve come to think of the relationship between these payoffs and academic research in terms of a temporal metaphor:
(1) “Pre-scholarly” dividends
On the one hand, blogging offers certain benefits that I’d call “pre-scholarly” because they’re oriented to the goal of generating ideas that can be developed further in research. Here blogging is like “freewriting,” a la 3rd grade English class, wherein the point is to “put some thoughts down on paper” and get them flowing without having to worry too much about whether they’re actually right or wrong. To say something on a blog, after all, isn’t to put it On The Record per se—and in any case it’s very easy to go back the next day and strike it from the record. (In fact, you could even argue that this “zig-zag” style of blogging is very efficient for conveying a sense of thoughtfulness while also doubling your output, which is a real issue if you’re a blogger. My point being: Who has something worthwhile to say every day? Certainly not I.)
(2) “Post-scholarly” dividends
Conversely, blogs can also be a medium for summarizing or disseminating research results in a very authoritative and definitive style. Writing in a quasi-journalistic mode, an academic blogger can report on the scholarly Events of the Day without having been a part of the action itself. To me, the most interesting thing about this payoff is that it appears to be based on a kind of “meta-objectivity,” by which I mean a position of implied distance from the object in which the object is itself a world where authority flows already to those who effectively cultivate a stance of objectivity and distance.
There’s no doubt, then, that blogs have a certain seductive appeal to them, especially in their promise to combine these payoffs. And I should emphasize that I don’t consider either payoff to be “false.” In fact, over the last month I’ve seen some truly virtuoso examples of academic blogging, both on this site and on some related ones. Overall, then, count me as a cautious fan of academic blogging. However, because I’m both an admirer of Durkheim and a confirmed pessimist, my first impulse whenever I see something seemingly innocuous or good is to go looking for its pathological forms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking and you’re correct: I am great at parties.)
You don’t have to look very far to find academic blogging’s pathological forms. The most obvious would have to be the hubristic style of blogging which, by imagining itself as merging the pre- and post-scholarly stances I just described, also makes a subtle claim to exist in between them—as if being an academic blogger somehow makes you a better scholar. As a blogger, you can post your anecdotal observation-in-need-of-further-investigation one minute and then switch to your Ted Koppel-style Summarizing Voice of Authority the next, the implication being that you also operate quite comfortably in between those bookends. Now I’m sure that an Inveterate Blogger would say that there’s no such message built into the act of blogging. Fair enough, I’d say, but this only brings us back to our original question: Why blog? Given the focus of my earlier posts, it should come as no surprise that I see in the “will to blog” something other than a megalomaniacal impulse or a straightforward result of the growth of new media technologies. Instead, I think the popularity of academic blogging has to be understood in relation to other developments in the intellectual field over the last four decades, including the proliferation of “new cultural intermediaries” and intellectual bridging figures, the development of a space of “organized punditry,” and the rise of think tanks and “policy experts.”
As I mentioned above, there’s no question that bloggers can, in their best moments, act as intellectual bridging figures between disparate worlds, such as those of policy, media, and research. But I think embedded in the larger story is a cautionary tale, especially for younger scholars. For instance, if you’d asked me to name the quintessential intellectual bridging figure in America just four months ago, I would have named Jonah Lehrer, the now-discredited neuroscience journalist who went from research assistant in a Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist’s lab to a Rhodes Scholarship, and then on to the land of Wired magazine and TED talks. Lehrer skipped the part where you actually master “straightforward” scientific research and moved immediately into the role of an intellectual bridging figure.
I find his story very interesting, not just because he’s the latest inductee into the Pantheon of Disgraced Journalists already inhabited by people like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. More interesting, I think, are the striking continuities between Lehrer’s “sins” and the qualities that made him successful in the first place. These continuities in turn reveal the supreme ambiguity of the bridging role he tried to play. The last straw for Lehrer, reputation-wise, was the revelation that he had fabricated quotes in his most recent book. This was an unambiguous ethical breach by any professional code of conduct, be it scholarly, journalistic, or otherwise. However, to focus only on this last stage of his downfall would be to miss its connection to the previous ones. I’m referring, first, to the intermediate stage in which Lehrer was dogged with the awkward charge of “self-plagiarism,” and second, to the earliest critiques of Lehrer, which date roughly to the moment he first stepped into the public eye. Even these critiques, I would argue, contained the seeds of his undoing. In a 2007 review of his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist (published when Lehrer was just 26), Jonathon Keats presciently charged that Lehrer’s work was governed by “trivial” choices and “reductionist” tendencies; that it “arbitrarily and often inaccurately illustrat[ed] the sciences with works by artists”; and that it “embodie[d] an approach to the humanities and sciences that threaten[ed] the vitality of both.”
The common thread across these critiques, in a word, is shortcuts. Jonah Lehrer took too many shortcuts. But how could you avoid taking shortcuts if your public reputation was based on your supposed ability to synthesize and reinterpret work from numerous fields, translate it into an easily digestible style, and engage in rapid, voluminous production—particularly at such a young age? (Lehrer published four books by the age of 30 and wrote columns and/or blog postings for several major outlets, including Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Guardian.) Despite all the disfavor heaped on him, no one has ever accused Lehrer of being an out-and-out fraud. I find this, along with the fact that much of the offending work was hidden in plain sight for months (or even years) before anyone called him out on it,† to be very telling. Both points speak to a constitutive ambiguity in the intellectual bridging role Lehrer was attempting to play. His loss of public legitimacy wasn’t sudden, but followed a slow, steady progression from “He’s not quite the virtuoso he wants us to believe he is” to the more concrete but still vague, “He recycled his own material, and that’s… not right, is it?” to the final, damning, “Dude, he just made up that Bob Dylan quote.”
In summary, I hope you can see that my view on academic blogging is double-sided and that this is not a critique of the medium itself. As an Inveterate Blogger would point out, any broad slam against blogging would have to rely on sloppy generalizations, fuzzy and impressionistic thinking, and straw men. I’ll leave aside the obvious retort—namely, that generalizations, fuzzy thinking, and straw men are precisely what blogs enable you to get away with so easily—and focus instead on the main point, which is that academic blogging’s attractions seem to come at the cost of ambiguity: ambiguity about the “rules” of a good blog, ambiguity about the ultimate goals and payoffs, and ambiguity about the proper relationship between blogging and research. When viewed in this light, the “constraints” of scholarly research begin to look more like forms of freedom to me.
* The title of this post refers to two “Daniels”: Kahneman, whose 2012 book you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, and Defoe, whose titles generally had that cool 18th century flair about them and ran roughly the length of a typical blog post.
† And I mean really plain sight, as in New York Times Bestseller List plain sight.