is the word 'diary' better than the word 'blog'? probably not.

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That's what I said (at SPEP).

I was asked to join a roundtable put together by the Advocacy Committee at SPEP (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) to discuss New Media, Social Networks and Philosophy. The charge was that each of the 4 participants would speak for 10-15 minutes and then we’d open up the session to a conversation. Chris Long talked about various online collaborative projects as well as his use of twitter to add more content to talks he gives. Robin James discussed the political economy of social media work—how it’s labor we do that isn’t paid but enriches corporations and universities—and also about what it’s like to be a woman on the internet. Patrick Whitehead talked about how the sheer scale of the hypernetwork changes our sense of reference with regard to time and space. And I talked about some other possibilities and limitations (I’ll copy the text of my remarks below). One of the themes I focused on was why we might want to hold back, when it comes to developing philosophical work, from the constant sharing, in order to give thought the time and shelter from exposure it needs in order to come into being. And I reminded us that once we make something public, it becomes a joint property subject to the use of and modification by others. So it made me laugh when, later that night, someone said to me at the wine reception: “I heard you bragged about how long you’ve been on the internet.” Ha. Yeah. That’s what I said.

Here’s what I said:

There are many ways that platforms like blogging and social media can benefit philosophy or philosophers by offering democratizing sites for sharing work, discussing problems philosophical, political and practical, building shared intellectual communities, and so on. Especially at a place like SPEP, where many of us may be practicing philosophy in a way that gets marginalized in our institutions or even the larger intellectual culture, these sites for expression may even help us do something I think at least some of us really need to do, which is to enable the margins to become their own center. To do that will likely mean giving up some of the identifications that training in philosophy prepares us to have. So part of what social media and like ways of communicating and organizing might offer is a way of experimenting with those changes such that they feel less like loss. When the margins become their own center, there is loss—of what formerly was a center. But there is also gain—of a possibly more responsive center, and a more affirming set of identifications. These are the kinds of thoughts I tend to have about the potential of these forms. I also have thoughts about their limits. I’ll say a bit more about both.

Anyone who knows me and is also on social media knows that I make a big use of it. I use it for pleasure, I use it for work, I use it to feel connected to the daily lives of friends and family who live far away from me, and I use it to gather information on questions that are best answered consulting the hive-mind wide-but-tailored range of persons one encounters in a setting such as Facebook.

I learn a lot from other people on social media, for better and for worse. The articles and news items that other people post sometimes help inform my research and writing, or point out to me things I’d never end up thinking on my own. Blog entries and the conversations around them spur my thinking. People’s choices about how to frame problems or how to respond to each other about those problems strike me as wrong or as right, and I move forward accordingly. Videos of animals sometimes redeem a dull or depressing day.

I was also an early adopter of all of this stuff. I was on Friendster in the early 2000s and MySpace in the mid-2000s. I was letting people know where I was using Dodgeball and early versions of FourSquare. I adopted Twitter so early that my twitter name is @jill. I’ve been blogging since 2004, and I’ve had a smartphone since 2002, back when airport security people didn’t know what they were. All of this is nothing to be proud of. I mention it only to show that I’ve been thinking about these things for a good space of time.

Before the first and second web explosions I published a fairly well-regarded zine for 10 years. I was also part of a small publishers coop that made offset printing affordable. So… I have been an enthusiast for and supporter of forms of communication that aim to give power and voice to the margins for a long time. These powers, at least at the beginning, are always inevitably small, and fraught with what is both good and bad about equality.

When I sat down to think about what John asked us to think about—“New Media, Social Networks, and Philosophy”—I wondered whether I had sat down to think about this before, and found that I had said something about it in my blog on July 28, 2004. Here’s a bit of what I said then, under the heading, “Should the phrase “online diary” be an oxymoron?” At the time I was using the phrase “online diary” in order to try to stop the word “blog” from happening. I hate that the term “web log” got turned into the noun “blog” and, even worse, the verb “blog.”

I still have a journal in which I write things that I don’t want anyone else to read. That journal, like this one, sometimes is about my “work” or the thinking process that leads up to an academic or other writing/thinking project. And it is also often about my life, and what I think about or wonder about, or what I am having a hard time thinking through. Or it is about some silly or serious thing that happened that I needed to write down so I could understand what it meant to me, or why I reacted the way I did, etc. …

What is written for an online diary has to be ready for the light of day, and that is different from writing in a personal diary. Sure, writing, even when it is writing for oneself, is aimed at communication, and communication takes place between persons. Nonetheless, not everything has to be said in public, or out loud. In fact, not everything has to be said. I would hazard that it is even important NOT to say certain things, or at least it can be worthwhile to give thought to what you will and will not say.

I should note that the history of my blogging career is riddled with errors of judgment with regard to what should and should not be said.

The larger blog entry makes a point stolen from Hannah Arendt, about how in order to have a public life, one needs to have a space of privacy where you can develop ideas and be yourself, shielded from all that is probing and unkind about public life. This isn’t some oversimplified liberal idea about the public/private distinction, but instead is a point about the conditions that make meaningful thought and action possible.

Nietzsche wrote: “A thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish.” That means, among other things, that, though thought may not come when I’m ready, I still need to prepare a space where it might arrive.

So in 2004 I worried that the embrace of blogging—even before things like Facebook or Twitter caught on—was (in addition to being a good development, opening up spaces of expression for a wide array of persons) possibly enabling people to remove from their lives, without even recognizing the loss, a space where they might be shielded from what happens when something is made public.

This is a tricky point because it too easily lands in a place where we should keep things to ourselves because that’s easier, and then we’re all stuck in some kind of closet. That is not what I want to say. So allow me to try to clarify.

I just finished writing a book that was very difficult to write because I was trying to say something critical about discourses of transitional justice, reparative justice and political reconciliation without discounting what matters about those same discourses. And I was immersed in researching a lot of concrete examples of horrific violence. In order for that book to get written, I needed an inordinate amount of time for thinking that wasn’t public; that risked saying things that would only be distorted or misunderstood if released too quickly. It needed a good long time in the sheltered space of my brain and office before encountering the air of the wider world.

Of course, parts of the book did benefit from discussions I had with others over the years when I was asked to present portions to conferences and symposia, or when small audiences read a chapter or two and discussed their thoughts with me. But that is feedback of a different kind from what one usually encounters in the internet’s version of public.

The internet’s version of public takes what Arendt already observed in 1958 about the web of human relationships and either speeds it up or removes thoughtfulness from it, or both. Arendt argued that none of us knows for certain what we reveal when we attempt to reveal something of ourselves to the larger world. That isn’t only because our own identities are never fully complete, but because once we let something of our own invention loose in the world, it becomes a joint property subject to the judgments and use of others.

So, if I blog a bunch of preliminary thoughts on problems with how archives of testimony characterize what they archive, and someone gets mad, and lets me know why she disagrees, either diplomatically or not-so-diplomatically, I might learn something about what I’m trying to think my way through. Or I might get distracted from my own line of thought by descending into an internet revenge cycle of response and more response. As someone who finds a good argument interesting even when I disagree with it, I can’t say this would be a total waste of time.

But time does matter here. Sometimes what thinking needs is a good space of time separate from what Arendt calls the light of publicity. Arendt chooses to use a metaphor of light and dark but I suppose I would rather talk about time. Perhaps different kinds of time in different kinds of light.

I have no doubt that serious philosophy can happen in blogs and perhaps even on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. Probably not Twitter. New forms of media even open up the possibility of new forms for doing philosophy and, as I said at the start of my remarks, may offer forms of time and space for creating new forms of collaboration, sites of power, and refusal of institutions that do not help us.

But I doubt any of that can rid us of the need for conditions for thinking that sometimes do require a lack of exposure.

This might be an observation about form and content, two things which anyone with a PhD in Rhetoric knows are not the same but also are not totally distinct.

About that I’ll offer an anecdote, and then some closing observations.

When I first heard about the idea for Twitter, before it launched, I thought to myself, wow, this will be a platform full of aphorism! Modern versions of Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche will flock to the form to use language carefully and well! To me it seemed that the 140-character limit would encourage and even force such usage. We all know how things really turned out.

My second thought or hope about Twitter was that it would be a site for experiments like Oulipo, the mid-20th century literary movement called Ouvroir de literature potentielle—Ou Li Po—that used writing constraints to fuel creativity. That didn’t really happen either, though there have been contests to tell a whole story in 140 characters and the like.

My point is: the 140-character form has many different potential uses, and what I thought would be the most promising use is not at all how it is used. We’ve seen today that there are interesting ways of using its constraints to comment on what happens at conferences, etc. But it seems to me that many people use Twitter despite its constraints to try to communicate things that would be better communicated on a different kind of platform.

All of these forms have promising uses, and all of them also offer constraints that may spur creativity or foreclose certain kinds thought or action.

So let me be clear. When I say that I worry that social media, blogging and various other forms of instantaneous but distanced communication may rob us of a space where we are protected from being exposed all the time, which is also a space necessary to some kinds of serious thinking, I mean that the forms and methods of social media allow that. They do not protect against it. Any of us can still think carefully about what we do and do not want to reveal, and make decisions accordingly.

And in making those decisions, all of us will err part of the time. But we do need to think about what these forms are good for and what they will never get for us.

Perhaps none of this needs to be said in this group, where all of us fairly constantly struggle to define spaces for ourselves where we can do the work of thinking, share that work, and have it matter, for ourselves and others. But I also wouldn’t want to leave it unsaid in a forum for discussing “New Media, Social Networks and Philosophy.”

So let’s return to what’s promising. New media and social networking can help turn loss into gain. As continental philosophers working within the academic institution of philosophy, most of us operate at a loss at least part of the time. We can’t entirely escape the reality of that, because it’s a reality not entirely of our making. It is our backdrop, you might say. But against that backdrop we can build. And if we build well, we may even create spaces where indifference to the larger reality becomes possible. We build networks and audiences and critical methods, and maybe, over time, we even stop thinking of those networks and audiences and methods only in comparison with the larger institution of academic philosophy. Over time, we may find that that institution, it turns out, is no longer a backdrop to everything we do but just another region. Somewhere we might visit sometimes, if we like. Or not, if we prefer not to. Somewhere that loses its power to determine what we do and how we do it.

I’m not saying any of that would be easy, or fast, or risk-free. But institutions change, and centers of power shift, and new sites of creativity get born, and this is happening constantly, every day, at a pace often not recognizable to the human eye save for in retrospect after time has passed. New media and social networks can be used to contribute to that form of possibility, and to think carefully about which uses further that, and which ones do not.

These media and networks can also distract us from the hard work of writing and thinking, keep us tethered to relatively inconsequential battles, or reify the power of those whose power is really only reputation.

For instance, Facebook. There’s work I put into being with people there. Thoughtful comments, raging debates, enjoyments serious and silly. And then the work disappears. It falls down the barely searchable timeline. Truth be told, if I took the hours I give to Facebook and put them back into my blog, I would have more to show for it. But it’s also true that I’ve let Facebook cut into my blogging time but not my scholarly writing time, and I’ve done that in part because of a perception, over time, that I wanted my scholarly writing to sit for a bit, unexposed, so I could live alongside it and think it well. So I’ve got a folder full of blog entries that don’t get posted because they aren’t ready to be said. I’m not saying that blogging is bad, and I’m not suggesting that my judgments about time and thinking should be universalized. I’m only saying that it matters what we do and do not say.

These are thoughts about balance and thinking and speaking and writing and living that I’m constantly working my way through—sometimes in public, sometimes in private. None of this means I’m going to stop watching cat videos, blogging, or speaking my mind. But I will try to pay closer attention to where I’m directing my energies, in the hope that I’ll contribute to building a good home for philosophical thinking. And for my own life.

1:39 p.m. - October 24, 2014
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