Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Sociology Blog?  §

Teaching Understanding Media Studies at the New School for the fourth semester in a row has me once again reading through material on blogging by academics, most of it embracing blogging wholeheartedly. By blogging, apparently, we’re meant to:

  • Share our sociological work and research as it progresses
  • Build social networks
  • Begin to construct a durable online persona
  • Market ourselves as serious scholars
  • Inadvertently (but importantly) create our own facsimilie of the commonplace book

All of this sounds fabulous, so as someone that has blogged on and off (though mostly on) since 1999, well before the awareness of blogging as a phenomenon entered the cultural consciousness, I would seem to be the ideal candidate to create, maintain, and have success with the modern socioblog.

Only I don’t. For those, like me, that straddle disciplines uneasily, or that believe that the disciplines as they currently exist are nearly nonsensical and that much academic production is un(not in)valuable,  it seems as though the sorts of half-baked ideas and informal chatter that can litter a blog will generate negative brand image, rather than positive network effects.

My position in the academy has, since I was an undergraduate, been one of attempting to take a particular patch of high ground in pitched battle. I am continually vulnerable and can’t afford to betray my position until my defenses are ready. This has been proven again and again.

So what, precisely, would be on such a blog? No ground that couldn’t be defended against attack. Nothing that could be seen out of the context of a full network of conceptual and argumentative support. For me, in short, very little, if anything at all, that wouldn’t be more at home in a paper.

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All of this navel-gazing somehow meshes uncomfortably with my dissertation topic, which keeps evolving. Every time I seize hold of it and really work in earnest, in fact, it changes again—never radically, always subtly, the latter creating in fact much more serious problems for the scholar and the ongoing scholarly project than the latter.

But in fact I’m thinking nominally about openness—in technology, originally, and somehow also in research, and in their relationships (very poor and ideologically blinkered ones, in fact) to one another. More specifically, I am interested in the spectacular failure that openness has become, across any number of societal dimensions. But of course to even begin to address this problem empirically, there’s a lifetime of work to be spent convincing the social-scientific crowd that openness isn’t the greatest, most successful thing since super glue and sliced bread.

— § —

And that’s emblematic of the reason that sociology has lost its audience, or at least the audience that I believe it ought to seek. Long after having decided to ignore the self-described experiences the public, and now having come to the decision to exclude also the first-hand impressions of the technocrats, sociologists have become a kind of literary community, a discourse, a language game, a club of the Serious People that think about other people In A Very Particular Way (the “sociological” way, or the “distinctive Chicago” way, or similar) without ever asking (for the question is so obviously irrelevant to the purposes and values involved) whether such ways are in keeping with (1) those peoples’ own understandings of their experiences, or (2) any particular social good that can be described and defended rigorously as such.

Here I think I’m in the Mills-Latour camp (an uncomfortable marriage if ever there was one, but it works here). The point is to represent, empathize with, and express the interests and experiences of public(s), not objectify them or make little lego bits out of them for assembly and reassembly in so many ponderously intricate combinations in the interest of keeping the wayward money of the wealthy flowing and the ponderously irrelevant-yet-detailed CVs growing. I would like to propose that it is generally a bad idea to willfully invert Occam’s Razor as a normative proposition, yet that is precisely the practice of most of sociology today. Take what everyone already knows, and rehash it arguing that it is in fact secretly its own inverse, and that nobody ever noticed this before because (1) nobody is as smart as you, and (2) “the social” is mysterious and subject to four and twenty kinds of manipulation by all sorts of agencies that current generations outside of sociology increasingly view as parts of a quaint 19th-and-20th century imaginary of the world, amongst these the national, the political, the economic, the demographic, and so on. Let me proceed rhetorically to drive the point home. What does it suggest that the biggest victory in sociological work is to manage to find a topic of study that “nobody has ever bothered to look at before” and dedicate a life’s work to it? This is, of course, what all of the guides for new graduate students and lectures on how to succeed in graduate school tell you to do—find something nobody’s cared enough to examine, or look at something that people do care about but do it in “a completely new way.”

Academics itself, in all of these aspects, is yet another spectacular failure of openness and the dynamics of its ethos—not inherently, but as a matter of the particular threads of historicity from which the present is woven—just like democracy, open-source software, the hippie movement, 24-hour Taco Bells, and the western embrace of Yoga and Zen.