Crisis on Infinite Websites/Campuses!

Ray at Bellona Times presents us with an inspiring vision:

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters — the comparison that decides the value of what they’re doing — isn’t their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

–to which Wealth Bondage responds:

Blogs? The deal, I think, is this: I will pretend to read your crap; if you will pretend to read mine.

It’s two sides of the same coin really, since I’ve felt both sentiments (though hardly as wittily) on alternating days. But Ray mentions academia specifically, and the large amount of books printed up in editions of 500, or 200, to be shelved at an equal number of libraries and consulted only ever after for futher dissertations.

Much of the stuff coming out of literary academia in the last twenty years, give or take ten, would be, if self-published in pamphlet form, be branded the work of cranks. This is not to comment on its quality or worth; it is simply a statement about the sort of internal validation arcane, “technical” writing needs to gain credibility. When it’s said that of course a layman couldn’t understand Fredric Jameson, and two or three years of being a teacher’s assistant is necessary to get it, there are two possibilities: one, that like neurobiology or electrical engineering, modern language theory is a well-founded discipline that has grown from a foundation of concrete; or two, that its validation is purely internal.

It might be presumptuous to make this observation if the speakers at the MLA weren’t alluding to the same thing. The New York Observer takes far too much pleasure in reporting the dire state of the academy that rejected most of the paper’s writers, and they fail to notice that what MLA President Stephen Greenblatt says–

We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club. It’s as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories.

–is not so different than what ex-MLA President Elaine Showalter said a few years prior to that, when she suggested that graduate students in literature be able to use their training for non-academic jobs (i.e., not to do the thing with your graduate education that you couldn’t do without it). Both Showalter and Greenblatt explicitly undermine past defenses of the most obscure work produced by their establishment, and it at least indicates a coming crisis.

What it points to, specifically, is an upcoming point at which the judgment of work will be so disciminatory as to rule out all but obvious geniuses or trend-setters. You can see it happening if, as the article suggests, academic presses cut down on the number of lit crit books published to the extent that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between the gray masses of non-genius Ph.D.’s. If this stage is reached, where we’re at now will look like an interim stage. Things may turn decisively commercial, with the classic gentleman’s club of criticism so beloved by the old white men who prospered in it continuing in drastically diminished form, and the more fashionable theory disciplines generating something not too far off from market research. Since everything is a text anyway, it’s not hard to see Ph.D.’s analyzing websites and magazines and producing area-targeted follow-ups of Growing Up Digital. Franco Moretti (read the review, it’s quite good) has already analyzed the causes of the popularity of books of the past; why not take it into the future, where it’ll be useful?

Assuming such a switchover happens, the arcane work, or what’s left of it, has to move somewhere, and people including Stephen Greenblatt are already suggesting the web. In the absence of a silver bullet that preserves a prestige publishing industry at low cost, that’s what will probably happen. At that point, the web, previously home to popularizations, incomplete understandings, and well-ground axes, will bulk up with some of the most incomprehensible writing imaginable, and their audience will be, at the end of the day, about as big as it was before. The point being that the current state of affairs, where the literary establishment publishes incomprehensible technical work and the web is home to chatty, colloquial correspondents, is unsustainable, and substantively speaking, the situation will probably invert before it stabilizes.

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