Personal Blogging

November 17, 2010

As I said a few posts back, I started blogging more than three years ago in a state of considerable turmoil and distress. In an early post I quoted Bellow’s Herzog, which captures something of the seething inner frenzy of thoughts and associations that the blog was meant to help articulate, externalise, and make available for reflection and action. In that department, blogging has succeeded pretty much beyond my wildest dreams: when I started blogging, I had at my intellectual disposal a mass of unsystematic autodidactic reading, much of it literary; an undergraduate degree in analytic philosophy; an intense engagement with a handful of intellectual figures (e.g. Derrida; Freud); an intense and justified rage; and a desire to master the discipline and subject-matter of economics, without an understanding of which it seemed impossible to comprehend the social forces that make and destroy our lives; or to understand what among the world’s abundant horrors can and should effectively be contested, and how.

Out of that work of articulation has come a settled and long-term intellectual research project, the value of which I am confident in, and do not feel the need to defend (though I am happy to). To recapitulate, I see the long-term project as consisting in the following stages (I’ve said all of this before, so the blockquoted section below can be skipped):

1) Social-theoretic foundations. I want to establish, to my own satisfaction, the social-theoretic basis on which the analysis of complex social and economic structures can rely. That’s another way of saying that I want at least a sketch of a solid, scientifically legitimate theory of practice. I also want a mastery of the core texts of the social-theoretic canon, such that I can participate with some authority in social-theoretic discursive communities. I also feel it would be valuable and, given my intellectual background, plausible, to aim to articulate the philosophical reasons for accepting a theory of practice as foundational, in the way I advocate: that is, to participate in philosophical discussions of the status of social practice, etc. This latter is not a particularly central goal of the project, though. I’d like to produce at least one document that gives an account of the positions I advocate in these areas – not to do so would, I think, be a waste of a lot of work. On the other hand, these social-theoretic foundations are foundations, rather than the finished thing I’m building, so I don’t want to get too hung up on articulating this stuff.

2) History of capitalism. I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post – basically I want to produce a very short, very rough-and-ready history of capitalist society from about 900AD (i.e. well pre-capitalist) to the present day.

3) Value theory. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly elsewhere – I want to make a systematic study of different traditions of economic theory, comparing and contrasting approaches to the theory of value between and across traditions. This will involve articulating the theory of value that I myself aim to defend.

Those are the three core initial stages of the project. There’s other stuff I need to cover too – e.g. I ought to read some anthropology as part of the social-theoretic reading; I need to acquire a mastery of the central mathematical tools used in modern econ. But this stuff can be slotted into the category of ‘general further studies’. Basically the above three sub-projects I think cover the core foundational elements of the larger endeavour.

Of necessity, subsequent work is at present less clearly planned in outline – I expect it in large part to be determined by the results of 1-3 above. I think I can, however, sketch at least the general intent, since the later work is, after, all, the principal purpose of the project. Once 1-3 above are largely complete, therefore, I expect to turn to:

4) A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory. Critique of positions I regard as flawed; articulation and defense of positions I regard as correct.

5) Analysis of contemporary events. This will presumably have two components:
a) more International Relations / world-systems type analytic work.
b) more immediate commentary on stuff in the news, etc.

6) Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform. I regard this last as by some distance the most practically important of the goals listed here. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly before on the blog, but to recapitulate still more briefly: I regard the proposal and analysis of institutional alternatives as by far the most practically helpful contribution intellectuals as intellectuals can make to the general left project of transforming society for the better. Further, I regard it as a really important and essential contribution, and a task that I think the left in general should spend a lot more time on than presently it does. I’m sure I’ll write on this again in the future, and obviously I can’t discuss this rather fraught set of issues now in the detail they deserve – but basically, there are a number of key things that have often gone wrong, historically, with attempts at large-scale emancipatory transformation of society: a) hard power wielded by the ruling class crushing the attempt. b) popular movements pushing for right, rather than left, politics (this can be framed as a problem of organisational strategy, but it’s clear that anti-establishments movements aren’t intrinsically leftist.) c) radicals who gain power fucking up, policy-wise. It’s c) that interests me in this department. It seems to me that bad institutional choices have often been made by powerful groups with radical left intent, and that while there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the important ones is that the radical left hasn’t spent nearly enough time discussing what concrete institutions it wants to implement, if and when it gets the chance (and we’re in a particularly barren period, for this, historically, now, I think). What do we actually want, in concrete institutional terms, and why? There are, of course, answers to this question being put forward – I’m obviously not suggesting that there’s a blank slate here. I am saying that I want to be able to provide my own answers to this question, in some detail; and also that I want, if I can, to help foster and participate in a more far-reaching debate on the left around this issue than presently exists.

There’s of course a lot more that I’d like to write about all of this stuff, even in this kind of outline form, but I’m going to leave it all aside for now. The above is a sketch of what I understand my intellectual project to be. I think it’s a potentially valuable one, and it’s a project I’m committed to. It’s also, obviously, a fucking huge project. I don’t think it’s unrealistically huge, given my age, abilities, and the average predicted human life-span for those in my demographic. But clearly there’s a lot that could happen – a lot of different kinds of things that could happen – to prevent me from completing these tasks. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to me to have these goals: a roll of the dice at not unacceptable odds.

Having established all of that, I want to talk a bit about the personal (social) affiliations I think this project involves. To my mind I am, in attempting this project, affiliating with two separate, though overlapping, broad communities of practice and discourse: first, the scientific community, specifically the social-scientific community (and as I’ll say at greater length eventually, I regard the social sciences as, in principle, legitimately affiliated with the broader scientific community – I don’t regard sociology or economics as intrinsically pseudo- or non-scientific, although both disciplines have serious and non-accidental problems.) Second, the socialist/communist/Marxist political community. As I say, I regard these affiliations as to a very large extent distinct: the bulk of my project is social scientific, and I aim to legitimate the claims I’ll be making (about value theory, or the history of capitalism, for example) on social-scientific, rather than partisan political grounds. The bottom line is: a fact is a fact, whatever one’s politics. (Saying this doesn’t mean that I deny that struggles over what criteria to apply in determining what we accept as fact are political; and of course I feel free to make judgements about the material I’m studying that wouldn’t be shared by those who disagree with me politically. Again, I’ll expand on these distinctions at some later date.) At the same time, the social-scientific work I aim to be doing is of course informed by my political convictions: what research topics I consider worthwhile pursuing, what aspects of my topics I look into, etc. – all this is informed by the potential political use I see this social-scientific research as having, down the road. I see my commitment to norms associated with social science, and my commitment to norms associated with socialist / Marxist politics, as informing each other but as non-identical (though also as compatible). I also should say that these are non-homogeneous communities of discourse/practice, and that membership of them partly involves participation in the ongoing debate about their nature practised by those in and outside the communities themselves. I plan to explore all this stuff in future posts.

This is all well and good. The point is that as I’ve been blogging these last few years, I take myself to have developed a solidity of focus, and a confidence in the legitimacy of a potentially achievable complex long-term intellectual project. What started as a highly exploratory working-through of intellectual preoccupations has coalesced into a focused – albeit wide-ranging – set of tasks. I expect to continue working on these long-term tasks, and to regularly publish updates on my progress. It’s reasonably likely that I’ll try to publish some of this material in a formal setting (though I’m obviously also a big believer of blogging as a legitimate and valuable mode of publication).

However, this focus only applies to my sense of the tasks I’ve outlined above, and of the intellectual space this endeavour inhabits. Thinking about the tasks I’ve outlined above, as I go about them in my day to day life, I know that in attempting them, and even more in discussing my results, I am inhabiting a specific, and quite narrow, set of social roles. These roles are ones that I feel I’ve spent much of the last three plus years acquiring mastery of, and I’m happy with the level of mastery acquired. Nevertheless, these roles, and the complexes of practice they inhabit, only make up a fraction, albeit a significant fraction, of my life – and in many ways, now that the chaos of Herzogian internal association has diminished, at least with respect to intellectual matters, these roles do not represent the most significant and pressing aspects of my thinking to myself.

All these preliminary remarks are by way of saying that I’m thinking of making a significant shift in the content of the blog. I’ll still, as I say, publish material related to the vast ongoing project, some of it formal in nature. But I’m also going to start publishing a lot more personal material on the blog. I’m unclear at present exactly how this is going to work out: I don’t have a clear sense in my head of the form the future blog will take. I expect a lot of it will still be fairly abstract and ‘theoretical’, given that that’s often how I actually think. But to a large extent I’m going to turn this into a personal blog.

What does that mean? Well, given that the blog is published under my name, I’m obviously not going to be putting up anything that would cause serious problems with either the law or with the institutions that provide my income. (Not that there’s anything that I think would cause such problems; I’m just saying.) Likewise, I plan to respect the privacy of my family and friends in a fairly rigorous way, which is going to hugely limit, practically speaking, the amount of personal stuff I can blog about. Quite apart from personality issues, then, the blog is of practical necessity probably going to involve a lot of internal ‘reflections’. When I started blogging, the blog was highly ‘exploratory’. Basically I’m going to reboot to that kind of exploratory approach, w/r/t personal, rather than intellectual matters.

Now, although I’m not planning on being hugely revealing, w/r/t private lives of people I know etc, I’m assuming that the blog will aim to be quite personally exposing, in terms of things like the affects and thought processes and aspects of self made public. In terms of your readerly experience, the blog will quite likely become fairly tedious – others’ self-explorations are rarely engaging. While there’ll still of course be some philosophical and Marxian social-theoretic material, the blog’s content will be significantly shifting towards reflections on days’ events, on my own feelings and personality, etc. To be completely clear, there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll be offended if you de-blogroll the blog (for example), now that the nature of its content has changed. On the other hand, I’ve got zero sympathy with potential complaints that the blog is now too self-absorbed, that it assumes others will be interested in the minutiae of my life or thinking, etc. It’s entirely your choice whether you read the blog or not; if you are bored or irritated by its newly personal nature, don’t read it. I’ve created a ‘personal’ category, so you can tell what kind of content you’re likely to encounter in a given post, if you wish.

Most of the writing that’s gone up on my blogs so far has in some sense either inhabited or been oriented toward the social roles I discussed above. I’m going to try to step back from those roles, to a considerable extent. I suppose what I’m saying is that the blog up until now has been principally oriented to the discussion of intellectual content, whereas now the blog will also be more about me, the person who happens to be producing this content. This is, I think, what a lot of people use their intellectual blogs for already – so in that sense I’m just saying, again, that this is going to become a more personal blog.

At the same time, I’m not particularly interested in using the blog for socialising, etc. My plan is really to use the blog for a potentially slightly more exposing task: talking about the kinds of things, in personal and social life, that often can’t easily be articulated in more regular social or professional environments. Such difficulty of articulation is at least partly because of reputational risk – and reputational risk is obviously a large issue online. Nevertheless, the portability of online content – its relative lack of necessary connection to any specific discursive space – allows I think some possibilities of articulation that are foreclosed in the discourses of many smaller and more specifically grounded discursive communities. At any rate, I’d like, among other things, to explore here some things that are typically, I think, difficult to articulate in at least certain social spaces I’m familiar with.

I think this post basically covers my thinking about the transition to a more personal blog. Now to get on with it.


3 Responses to “Personal Blogging”

  1. Nate Says:

    hi Duncan,

    I know you’re not keen on the blog as socializing mechanism but please allow me to say –
    It’s been too long; I hope you’re well; I for one am excited about the turn toward more personal content.

    I can also very much relate to what you say about a turn in your blog and anticipating some objections and lack of interest, having done the same at my blog at least twice.

    I also want to say, the scope of your intellectual ambition is inspiring, and awe inspiring, and yet given your clearly top notch abilities and intellectual work ethic I could imagine you actually managing to pull this off eventually. I hope so, not least because I’d love to read it, and will be delighted to do “I knew him back when…” bragging.

    Happy new year,

  2. duncan Says:

    Hey Nate – good to hear from you :-). You’re very & too nice about the project – I think it’s much more likely than not that I won’t be able to pull much or any of this off. No harm in trying though.

    With the personal blogging – I was really intending to start writing more personal stuff here when I wrote the post above – but I basically haven’t been able to think of anything, so far, that I actually want to write up here: anything that’s both pressing and contentful seems too personal for a non-anonymous blog. I guess it gives me permission to pursue trains of thought that matter to me, though, without worrying too much about their connection to other things. Maybe that’s what the personal blogging impulse was about; or maybe I’ll work my way round to something genuinely personal, I dunno.

    But anyway – happy new year! I hope you & your family are well.


  3. […] I endorse. That is to say, they fulfil the principal task I set myself as the first part of my broader project – at least to my own […]

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