U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

homerCan we come to some empirical understanding of cultural criticism today?  In other words, has the explosion of outlets for commentary and critique given rise to the bravest new world of cultural criticism and public intellectualism that the U.S. has ever experienced?

I asked these questions remembering an H-Ideas forum I ran in 2005 and in light of a course I will teach at IUPUI in spring of 2014 American cultural criticism.  The H-Ideas forum was called, “The Democratization of Cultural Criticism” and featured as its touchstone an essay from George Cotkin published in the July 2, 2004 issue of the Chronicle Forum.  Responding to George’s essay were two other USIH stalwarts, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and David Steigerwald.  That experience carries special significance for me because it brought me deeper into the group that formed the core of this blog and ultimately the society.  My interaction with George, Elisabeth, and Dave gave me and apparently other many folks a sense that a virtual realm could collapse not just geographic space (George was and still is in sunny California and I was and still am in cold Indiana), but also professional space–I never studied formally with any of the three participants in the forum but now had a chance to engage in conversations that were qualitatively different than what happens at a conference or even an email exchange.

The heart of the debate among the three centered on George’s contention that “cultural criticism has certainly changed over the years. The old days of the critic who wielded unchallenged authority have happily passed. Ours is a more pluralistic age, one not beholden to a narrow literary culture.”  Elisabeth and Dave took issue with what they viewed as George’s unduly optimistic characterization of the culture surrounding criticism. As Elizabeth wrote in 2005: “Those who lament the current state of intellectual life have clarified up front that they do not mean there is no worthwhile intellectual work going on, but rather that the larger framework of understanding in which the public intellectual’s vocation made sense has nearly vanished.”

In calling attention to this forum and the exchange within in it, I don’t mean to hash out the differences between our interlocutors.  Rather, I am curious about how this blog in particular and the culture in general that supports such endeavors appears to folks seven years later.  We have plenty of evidence to suggest that people who write and read blogs think about the role on cultural critics, public intellectuals, and the audiences both engender–this blog being a prime example.  However, I have always appreciated those moments when a journal, or institute, or a blog tries to take account of its influence or changes over time.

I am made more aware of the growth of this particular group when I see who attends the annual S-USIH conference.  The blog has won an award for its writing and a Andrew Hartman was a finalist for another.  Our twitter feed seems quite lively and our book review section is humming along.  There are posts that generate dozens of comments (as well as posts that fail to get any). There seems little doubt that in the field of intellectual history, this blog has played a role in advancing popular as well as scholarly interest in the work of its practitioners.  It also seems to be a way to read and read about those who are not at major research universities or who are in graduate school. Collectively, this blog seems to reflect what George cheered with the emergence of a pluralistic age of cultural criticism.

But Elisabeth’s point lingers: while we might argue that this blog and many others like it produce quality writing as well as contribute to the quantity of work being done, how do we know what it means?  How do we measure the significance of work being done in this pluralistic age?  While I am very happy that we have this blog and believe it functions nicely on its own merits, where does it fit among the many blogs like it and in a literary culture that no longer has benchmarks or gatekeepers?  If you look at the forum I have linked to above and notice the number of “views” different discussions received, the volume is in then tens of thousands.  Likewise, I know we often watch the number of views and “hits” our blog posts get–for example, a couple of months ago, Andrew wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy that generated more “views” than many posts combined.  While I like Andrew’s writing a great deal, it seems it was the fact that McCarthy’s name appeared on our blog that boosted our exposure.

So by wondering how to measure or consider this blog’s (or any blog’s) popularity, I don’t intend to make a grand statement about the significance of the writing.  We have ways of commending each other’s work and certainly the old structure to publish our research remains very much intact.  What have we come to understand about our pluralistic age of cultural criticism?

One Thought on this Post

  1. In thinking about the influence of this blog, as a kind of mechanism for criticism and discussion within our field, perhaps it would be helpful to think through its constituency. This will help us get at points made by Cotkin and Lasch-Quinn.

    I don’t have a sense of relative percentages, but seems our constituency consists of the following: (1) history graduate students (high percentage), (2) young professors/instructors (middling group relative to the overall readership, consisting of historians and others), (3) independent scholars (like myself—with history backgrounds, but others as well), and (4) mix of at-large observers (various professionals, those thinking about grad school, some academic news types, publishers, publicists, etc.). And then we have various percentages of the same at our Facebook page. Conference attendees will likely draw largely from groups 1 and 2, and the work (cultural criticism) that derives from our conferences will reflect those two populations.

    So we have a pluralistic mix, it seems. This goes to Cotkin’s point. I would hope this pluralism is a positive for us. But it does mean that one might be, or grow, selective in terms of the posts that “get hits.” And Ray’s post above reflects that hits do, in fact, vary. We’re not uniformly concerned with each others work.

    On Elisabeth’s point about a common framework of understanding, well, things get interesting here. I don’t think we can be, or are, gatekeepers in any official sense. We have no measurable influence over how purse strings are tightened/loosened when it comes to selling the skills of readers and writers here. We don’t offer grants to help with projects, or to fund research. We don’t charge for access to the blog. Our monetary limitations reduce our ability to be influential.

    Also the various and sometimes competing interests of our readers and writers limits our ability to act collectively. Some of us are concerned about scholarship and tenure (and sometimes teaching). Others are concerned with teaching primarily. Others, particularly graduate students, may listen to voices at this blog, but the primary influences in their scholarly work are their committees of tenured professors. Independent scholars interests range far and wide.

    It is worth remembering that the blog is not the Society. The Society can, in fact, speak with a unified voice for those who pay to be members. The Executive Committee for the Society can use its small funds to push certain initiatives (better conference, perhaps a small study, found a new publication, etc.) that increase the profile of voices who choose speak at this blog and who are are also Society members.

    So the Society is our institution of power, though this blog is a cauldron of ideas—a potential feeder of initiatives. As such, so long as the blog really does help fill the pot of ideas for the ExCom, the blog can be the mechanism for cultural criticism—the mechanism for engaging culture, both in the profession and beyond.

    Maybe it all boils down to originality and creativity. So long as the blog is seen as a place where creative connections are made, and those connections have value, then it will be (or remain) a spot of vitality for the Society and beyond. The writing posted here, and the conversations that ensue, will be the lifeblood of the blog and the Society, so long as those that people the latter attend to the blog.

    For my money, our value is in the conversations. So long as there exists an engaged readership—of authors and commenters—then novel connections will be made. The creative juices flow through collaboration. I’ve seen with others, and I know that’s how it functioned for me. In the summer of 2011, for instance, when I posted long chunks of thoughts about my book project, my interactions with the readership—you (Ray), Dan Wickberg, LD, Andrew, and many others—changed the way my project turned out.

    So our cultural criticism is somewhat indirect. But it’s still effective. Our projects exist both on the blog and outside of it. This virtual space is both central and ancillary to our big projects (since blogs are often not the medium for releasing big projects). – TL

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