Logics of the Humanities and Online Long Form Argument

Thursday’s talk at the NEH/Vectors institute by Alex Juhasz raised some interesting questions for me about online argument. Humanistic thought has, for hundreds of years, operated in relatively linear and long-form arguments. Even those works that challenge linearity (I am thinking here of the standard stable of poststructuralist critiques) exists with reference to it, and still demands long stretches of attention, close reading and easy cross-referencing. Although we normally think of books and journals as things you read from front to back, the codex form is quite amenable to the glitchy rhythms of close reading–starting, stopping, moving around, cross-referencing.

Juhasz’s book, Learning from YouTube, is an experiment in online long-form scholarship. Since she’s an artist, she is less committed to standard humanistic argument than someone like me might be. Her arguments are presented performatively, as immanent critique of YouTube within YouTube, produced by her, her students and a fleet of interlocutors. The story of the publication — including having to rewrite the entire boilerplate publication contract — is interesting in itself.

For me, her decisions about form were of greatest interest. There is no standard for long-form online argument, which means no set of conventions, no imaginary audience that can be presumed, and no sedimentation of past practice to rely upon. Consider all the standard practices that the writer of a book or journal article can fall back upon: stylistic parameters; a universe of possible intertextual references; formatting conventions; expectations of readers; classroom pedagogies that teach students how to read the arguments; citational styles; storage and preservation protocols; a clear sense of niche into which the work will fit (textbook, theory piece, monograph, etc); and the writer’s long period of apprenticeship in the form prior to publication (lots of seminar papers, dissertation, etc).

Limits and conventions are incredibly productive in both intellectual and creative undertakings. I asked Alex about this, and she said she effectively had to impose her own limits. I’m not sure I still understand what those decisions were — clearly they all orbit around immanent critique of YouTube from within YouTube, a certain participatory aesthetic and a refusal of a certain polished style.

This blog post by Elizabeth Cornell nicely explains Scalar, one of the publishing platforms at our Institute. As she points out, it exists within a universe of academic and paracademic publication, in contrast to blogs, websites, wikis, etc. There are also a host of experiments in sustained online argument, though most of these take one of two forms:

1) the open-access journal, which is modeled on older scholarly forms but is free distributed online (The International Journal of Communication is a great example of this as are its predecessors like Postmodern Culture, Culture Machine and First Monday).
2) serialized online publications that are not journals or books, but sustain intellectual exchange both within and adjacent to the academy. Bad Subjects started as a ‘zine and then expanded that format online. It was collectively produced, and we had themed issues that drew contributions from both academics and nonacademics. FlowTV has the immediacy of a ‘zine but is firmly rooted within the world of TV studies, but its articles adhere to a shorter, commentary form. This aligns well with a certain kind of mid-century American style journal article, but that style has more or less been forgotten, and today isn’t recognized as a “journal article” in the same way an IJoC publication might be. (We often forget that the journal article style has changed a good deal over the last century.)

Scalar is attempting to connect the more dynamic aspects of online publication with the long form of journals and books. As drafts of my classmates’ projects start rolling out, I see that the platform works very well for two kinds of scholarship in particular: an annotated online archive, built from someone’s research; and close humanistic readings of audiovisual texts. At least they “make sense” to me, though it will be interesting to see what I think once they are completed and can be “read through” like other published work.

But the platform is still very much in beta (maybe alpha, even, but I’m impressed to say that it has never crashed on me), which means we are making stuff up, from citation practices (which I mentioned in the last post) to our imagined audiences.

To be fair, many of our assumptions about print are probably wrong as well. We know relatively little about our audiences and their reading practices. We buy many more books than we can read closely (I certainly do). But even those wrong assumptions are enabling in that once we learn to inhabit a form (whether or not we master it), we can forget about it except when we want to play with it. Right now, the challenge with Scalar–as with all digital publishing that is not simply an imitation of a book or a journal article–is that we are making it up as we go along. Alex made up her own limits, and my own struggle is finding more limits to impose on myself.