The Best and Worst of Intellectual Blogs 2007

(x-posted to The Valve)

What a very long year it’s been. It’s been a year shaped by the evolution of political discourse in this country and around the world. Here, as people grew increasingly sick of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, Democrats regained ground. An appreciation for “intelligent,” sensible approaches to complex problems — the basic Democratic credo since Bill Clinton, but one overshadowed by Bush’s cowboy moralism — put moderates at the forefront.

It was every bit as boring as it sounds.

For intellectual blogs, the year started with bangs and ended with whimpers. Many bloggers embraced the models set forth by the political moderates, and worked to create a more inclusive blogosphere that could speak to disillusioned, uncertain conservatives or, on the other side of the fence, pragmatically-minded liberals. In the spring and early summer, there were intense debates about — among other things — feminist issues (Full Frontal Feminism), the efficacy and significance of the American Christian right, and theoretical problems (Andrew Scull’s take on Michel Foucault). However, as the year wore on, the blogosphere seemed to simply fall to pieces. There was less collaborative work, and less antagonism. The effort involved was simply too great, so opposed blogs began ignoring each other or reconciling on the cheap. A genteel solipsism emerged as the norm among intellectual bloggers: “I know not what others may do, but here is my project, for you to interpret as you will.” In the deepening twilight that has followed the deaths of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, what passed for public intellectual discourse became either irrelevant (Stanley Fish in the New York Times) or strained to the point of hysteria (Slavoj Zizek) whenever it didn’t emulate the new centrism.

I hope, in the year to come, that intellectual bloggers will once more be willing to engage passionately with their commenters, instead of looking on in rueful condescension. I hope that more conversations spanning numerous blogs will arise, even if they take the form of blog wars. In any case, it’s December 24th and time for the best and worst of the intellectual blogosphere 2007.

PART ONE: THE BEST

New blogs. Of course, every year a new crop of bloggers arrives, and they invariably have a lot of energy to devote to the uncertain work of posting entries and writing comments. They’ll take on any subject, inhabit any metaphor, consider any claim on its own merits and immanent grounds. In part because of wonderful conversations taking place via N. Pepperell’s Rough Theory, 2007 was the year of Now-Times, Perverse Egalitarianism, and Wildly Parenthetical. At least one of these blogs began earlier, I seem to recall, but nonetheless this was their debut, as far as we here at the Grammy Awards are concerned.

The power of the image. This was the year when intellectual bloggers (with the exception of me) figured out that HTML is a medium that loves graphics and graphic design. N. Pepperell, having already given Rough Theory a terrific makeover, punctuated a return to considering Hegel with marvelous and evocative stills from The Wizard of Oz. Who can ever forget Antigram’s grainy, witty picture of the dominatrix, which he posted right above an attack on Zizek (and Zizek’s supporters) entitled “We Want Discipline”? (Both sides in the debate over Slavoj Zizek came up with astonishing pictures of the man: in the course of a single day, he can look like an inspired prophet and a debauched vampire.) Over at Acephalous, Scott Kaufman made a group of political blogger malcontents continue to discuss Swift Boat under the imposing aegis of Hello Kitty. Of course, speaking of Full Frontal Feminism, petitpoussin gave one side of the debate its rallying flag by taking a single trenchant and satiric photo.

One world, one blogosphere. The old distinctions between the different blog specializations are breaking down. Bloggers have become incredibly aware of the demands and desires of their audiences — more on this later — and one result was a trend towards posts about culture and even gossip on political and professional blogs. Meanwhile, particularly given the consistently lackluster response to posts about books, most intellectual bloggers turned towards politics and professional matters with increasing frequency. Celebrity gossip and reality television became matters of concern for highbrow writers. Political bloggers showed up on humanities blogs to defend their methods and ideas. Political activism, avant-garde poetics, geeky obsessions, and serious scholarly research — all that and more slowly fused together, thanks partly to mega-sites like Salon, BoingBoing, and Alternet, and partly to local friendships between bloggers of different stripes. This year, Timothy Burke coined the term “Everything Studies,” and the phrase clicked everywhere with bloggers. In short, the old divisions that used to produce segregated readerships no longer applied, and everyone benefited from the change. (Correction: I’m delighted to report that our own John Holbo, at The Valve, was the originator of “Everything Studies.”)

PART TWO : THE WORST

Reputation capital and the rise of the cynical blogger. It is inevitable that blogs will become a well-known, legitimate part of public discourse and self-fashioning; as a result, the romantic model of earnest avowals will go into decline. However, it is my hope that blogging will not become merely another avenue for self-promotion. The reasonable tone of so many bloggers just rang hollow this year: eager to appear intelligent and important, they wrote with the imperturable and phony goodwill of people giving interviews on television. Seminars and posts showed up everywhere on the subject of creating a dignified and impressive online persona: you can get famous by blogging. You can advance your career. You can eventually secure some kind of publication or book deal. The whole thing was more sickening than a conversation with a timeshare salesman.

Too much credit for sarcastic contempt. For example, those funny, funny authors who saw it as their mission to write thoughtless, hypocritical “parodies” of other bloggers, in the hopes of immediately earning vast quantities of readers without having to do the hard work of articulating viewpoints. It is terrific to be funny, and there is always occasion for satire, but it was just sad watching reasonable bloggers try to seem hip by linking to and celebrating their mockers. Just as these blogs got too much credit for a continual recourse to sarcasm, too many commenters got stuck doing the verbal equivalent of very slow, loud clapping. The blogosphere cannot survive on dismissals and exasperated gestures.

Fixed ideas. Yes, we are all in favor of long-form projects, but the number of posts that had five, or eight, or twenty sequels this year exceeded all reasonable limits. It didn’t matter the content of blog — everybody was bitten by the continuity bug, myself included, and the overhead was a disaster. Blame television for producing longer attention spans: when you tuned into a blog you hadn’t read in a while, it was like suddenly finding yourself with Season 6, Disc 3 of The Sopranos. Every time you return to something it should show you a new facet: whether that is something new in you, or new in it, is always hard to say, but each piece must be its own revolution.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2008

So, what’s ahead for 2008? I can’t predict trends, but I can say what I hope for, and that’s a renaissance of words in their essential loneliness. Intellectual blogging is a medium that thrives because it captures the quietude of those moments when we seal ourselves off from our surroundings in order to consider the printed words of another person. The tremulousness of the word, the expectation of an answer, the abjection and shamelessness of writing for self-publication: in order to be honest, a blogger has to be vulnerable, more so even than the author of a book. What she is writing apparently had to be blogged to be written at all. Given the voluntarism of the blogosphere, polish is merely comic; risk is the only thing worth admiring. The risk of saying too much, the risk of being unread, the risk of being misread — intellectual blogging must change from an indifferent exercise of dignified exposition into the willing practice of risk.

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