Back In The Saddle Again, Plus Meta-Blogging and Rorty

Dear readers,

Thanks so much for bearing with me during my hiatus, brought about my exams and last-minute wrap-up for the school year. I’m delighted to report that I passed my comprehensive exams, with emphases in modernist literature and the literature and philosophy of self-fashioning. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some of my writing from my exams, including thoughts on Augustine, Butler, Derrida, and Kenner.

I’m writing from the town of Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii, where I am halfway through a much needed ten-day vacation. Long-term, I’m going to be planning out a dissertation (on self-fashioning) that will probably include chapters on Shakespeare & Greenblatt, Joyce (esp. Finnegans Wake), and queer self-fashioning: Judith Butler, Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust. I’ll also be polishing up an existing essay on Brave New World, musical counterpoint, and Huxley’s critique of catharsis in Aristotle and Freud.

Blogging has been great for my writing; after almost a year blogging under my own name, it was much easier to write focused, declarative essays under time pressure (albeit ones riddled with typos: I called Irving Howe “Irvine Howe”). I’m excited to begin writing again, including here, after a period of concentrating to the point of exhaustion on pure reading and retention.


I’ve taken up the blogosphere again also, now that I have the leisure for it. Some nice news: petitpoussin had the extraordinary kindness to nominate me in the “best blog commenter” category, over at the Koufax Awards, and I was honored to be linked by the Second Carnival of Radical Feminists.

It’s been a strange week around the blogs, hasn’t it? Blog wars and more blog wars; it does seem as though the rate of entropy and autoimmunity is increasing. There was that blogger Brittney, who was forced to resign from a paid MSM blogging position after her decision to link (without comment) a disgustingly racist “obituary” came under fire from Jesus General.

Scott Eric Kaufman, at Acephalous, covered the whole chain of events (go there for the long history of relevant links) and made the argument that Brittney had been misunderstood by readers (most significantly the General) who weren’t regular readers and didn’t grasp the context of her post, including the ironically-meant title, “Teaching Libs a Lesson.” He was rewarded with an online assault from some lurker/commenter who is now trying to get him fired, apparently on the theory that if you can hurt somebody with whom you disagree, you should. All of this helped persuade Pandagon blogger Ilyka Damen that the Internet was poisonous, and she has decided to shut down her personal blog.

On other blogs, philosopher Richard Rorty’s death inspired some warm and thoughtful tributes, written by John Holbo and N. Pepperell among others.

So how do I feel about all of this? Well, at the risk of not only sounding like a bad person, but actually feeling like one, I am deeply ambivalent. I’ll start with the blog gossip, and then return to Rorty.

First of all, if what you’re looking for is care and concern, you can’t do better than the academic blogosphere. I’m not being sarcastic; I’m being utterly serious. Blogs that are noticeably academic work overtime to promote new bloggers, to provoke each other to new and loftier heights, and to sustain fellow bloggers during hard times. Hardly a day passes when Rough Theory doesn’t link some new and interesting writer, such as Grundlegung or the resurrected massthink. When I was about ready to give up blogging, kind words from Larval Subjects and The Constructivist encouraged me to keep going. Larval Subjects and Rough Theory are now at the center of thriving blog circles thanks to their constructive efforts at community-building.

The same is true of Scott Kaufman, who has even begun appearing to speak publicly about the value of academic blogging. He’s committed to building blogging communities, and he’s unafraid to write like an academic. Now he’s the pressure point for another merger of the academic and political blogospheres.

And for my part, I hope that the model of “political blogging” as we now know it disappears from the earth. There is only one thing to be gained from the political blogging model: the emphasis on the stranger, the first-time reader. Political bloggers know that they’re likely to be linked and read on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than over the long run of common interests. That is even true of sites like I Blame The Patriarchy that pretend to be in-clubs; over the past year, many friends of mine have become first-time IBTP readers, and none of them have had much trouble decoding it.

Scott defended Brittney on the grounds that she was being read out-of-context, which is why he and I disagree. But really, the hope of being understood in context is covering for a multitude of sins here: the queasy partnership with mainstream media, the pointless link post that adds no original commentary whatsoever (other than an invisible patina of irony), the unworkable ideal of “round table” free speech, and the clannish habits of some established bloggers, who came to Brittney’s defense for no particular reason.

I’m sick of hearing about academic jargon from people who consider themselves brilliant every time they trot out “asshat,” “Nice Guy™,” or “wingnut.” I’m sick of being told that the academy is an ivory tower by bloggers who think the most important political discourse concerns the upcoming race for the Democratic nomination. Sadly No! wrote a decent post on the Brittney/SEK situation (in response to some horrible conservative blogger), but had to throw in, “Man, that kind of [post-structuralist] patter plus a corduroy coat with elbow patches would get you laid at any one of the Seven Sister schools circa 1973.” You know what? 1973 was a great time to be an academic. Let’s not confuse bad appropriations of academic theory with all academia, in a post where the point is that we should not confuse one loose cannon with all liberals. (Also, bonus points for misogyny!)

I’d just added Ilyka to my blogroll and RSS feed, and now that she’s disappearing I guess I’ll have to take her off. That’s sad. But this world — this nasty, frequently uninformed or link-addicted, small potatoes world of the political blogosphere — is not a world I made. I owe it nothing, and I have trouble mourning the casualties of its civil wars. I’m too busy adding Wildly Parenthetical, a terrific new blog on the body politic, Grundlegung, and massthink to my blogrolls. All of them are writing about politics right now: the politics of nationalistic “blood” myths, Rorty’s ungrounded liberalism, and the Marxist theory of the exploitation of labor, respectively.

I was a student of Rorty’s at Stanford, and he introduced me to Kierkegaard, The Birth of Tragedy, Heidegger, the Euthypro and Meno, and, incredibly, to Wallace Stevens. The two courses I took with him were basically my introduction to the breadth of the philosophical canon; he was a matchless teacher. At the same time, my interaction with him shipwrecked during an independent study on Being and Time, where I wanted to read Heidegger “against the grain.” Specifically, I wanted to call into question Heidegger’s “ontic/ontological” distinction, while Rorty insisted that Heidegger be read according to his own instructions, a demand that continues to make innovative readings of Being and Time impossible.

As for Rorty’s published work and persona as a public intellectual, to my mind there is one work of consequence: Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In that volume, Rorty makes a great many assumptions about what “we” tend to believe and value, but he also makes some excellent arguments for socially productive ways of ironizing selfhood and democratic participation. It’s a sort of negative dialectics of solidarity, up to and including a terrific reading of Derrida’s impatience with Searle.

On the other hand, the two books that his NY Times obit emphasizes, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Achieving Our Country, are both dead ends. Rorty was much too fond of generalizing about American society; he tried to kill empiricism by announcing that it was already dead in our hearts. That is the essence of unreliability, and not co-ordinate with Nietzsche’s proclamation about God, since empiricism is not structured as a matter of faith. Predictably, he kept writing about the “end of philosophy,” and yet his obituary read, “Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75.” This was inevitable; his struggle with the philosophical tradition, even more than Derrida’s related struggle, landed him squarely within it, and I think we are obliged to resist the sentimentality of reviving (but only for a moment) the image of the kind old thinker, which has proved so ineffective at countering hatred of the academy since it is reserved for the dead. He claimed to be an inheritor of pragmatism, but there is an enormous difference between William James, with his interest in radicals and small religious communities, and Rorty, with his interest in the common sense of “us” or “most of us” or “the masses” as he understood them. Common sense has never needed one more defender.

Rorty touted his socialist upbringing, but his ideas were standard-issue liberal, and his nationalism wasn’t dialectical in the least — if everyone, not just Americans, started “achieving” their countries, that would be the foundation for transnational cooperation and the eventual withering-away of national identity. Figures like Roosevelt and Lincoln are easily picked up and dropped by American conservatives, as it suits them (cf. Ann Althouse‘s intellectual dishonesty), and the Rortian criterion (will their peers let them get away with it) is perfectly satisfied by these acts of cheap and manipulative co-optation.


Rorty left behind at least one indelible book, a book that any of us might aspire all our lives to equal without succeeding, a book that is fundamentally open to readings and an evolving series of uses. I’m not going to mourn him, at least not yet. I’m going to go back and re-read Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and “Anecdote of the Jar,” and throw him a wake.