13 October 2006

Slime Molds!

General exhaustion and an enormous pile of grading prevents me from writing much today (or from even having a coherent thought), so it comes as no surprise that slime molds would be on my mind. I am both pleased and a little bit frightened by the attention my blog has been getting in recent months. At present I'm getting an average of about 200 hits a day, with many of these hits consisting of repeat visitors. When I first began tracking traffic on this site, I expected to discover that I was perhaps getting between 10 and 20 hits a day. Instead I find that I'm getting ten times this number of hits, from 37 different countries (apparently a number of folks from Eastern and Northern Europe, along with England, enjoy this blog... Thank you!). Of course, I wonder whether it isn't preferable to be ignorant of these things. Now my dark unconscious fantasies come to plague me, generating thoughts that perhaps I will say the wrong thing or write something that causes others anger, and people will begin to seek me out wishing to destroy my career and life. I've seen it happen before, after all, on conservative blogs where home phone numbers and addresses have been posted and employers have been contacted. I've even thought about tearing the blog down once or twice since discovering this, as I worry about violating the general mission of "larval subjects" by becoming concerned with pleasing readers and trying to avoid saying something stupid (of course, as Lacan says, only the "non-duped err"... That is, the quickest way to stupidity is to try to avoid one's stupidity, and one's stupidities are themselves forms of thought). Yet the real question isn't whether or not this is a legitimate anxiety, but rather why this thought occurs to me at all. In other words, how does this fantasy function to sustain my desire? What wish does it embody?

Anyway, it's unlikely that I would ever get this sort of readership through traditional routes of publication in journals and books. While I occasionally am contacted by people interested in articles that I've written, this sort of communication only occurs a few times a year, and is not sustained in time. That is, the person contacts me, we have a brief exchange, and that's the last I hear from them. All of this leads me to wonder what sort of impact internet communication will have on how ideas are communicated in the distant future. Along these lines I was intrigued by Henry Farrell's article on blogging in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The standard account of the emergence of writing has it that writing emerged as a way of keeping track of business transactions and inventories. That is, it emerged for ends very different than those of transmitting religious ideas, literature, letters, etc. Yet with time it transformed the very nature of communication. Along these lines, is it possible that the future might bring the end of journals and academic books altogether? I am not suggesting that these will be replaced by blogs. But is it possible to think a fundamentally different relationship to theory that isn't encapsulated between the two covers of a book, but is instead a dynamically unfolding and ongoing communication that barely even has the name of an author attached to it? If I suggest the absence of an author, then this is because discussions in the blogosphere aren't so much signed by a single name, but are rather networks where a number of individuals in comments and diverse blogs work on a theme or problem, carrying it in multiple directions and working on it from multiple perspectives. And what is a book or article anyway, but a very slow moving conversation or discussion? Here it's worthwhile to think of the relationship between Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Leibniz' New Essays on Human Understanding, or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. What we have here are petrified or very slow moving discussions. These texts are dialogical. To my thinking, the key moment in Farrell's article occurs when he says,
Look at what's happening in the disciplines of law and philosophy. According to a recent count by Daniel J. Solove of George Washington University, 130 law professors have active blogs. David Chalmers of Australian National University lists 85 philosophy professors or Ph.D. students with blogs, mostly oriented to the discussion of philosophical issues. In both of those disciplines, those who don't either blog or read and comment on others' blogs are cutting themselves out of an increasingly important set of discussions. Casual empiricism would suggest that blogs play a less important role in the social sciences, the humanities, and the hard sciences -- for the moment. But in those disciplines, too, blogs are becoming more prominent and more widely accepted.

* * *
Academic blogs should be especially attractive to younger scholars, to whom they give an unparalleled opportunity to make their voices heard. Cross-blog conversations can turn the traditional hierarchies of the academy topsy-turvy. An interesting viewpoint expressed by an adjunct professor (or, even more shocking, an "independent scholar") will almost certainly receive more attention than ponderous stodge regurgitated by the holder of an endowed chair at an Ivy League university. Prominent academics who start blogging do have an initial advantage; they're more likely to attract early attention than people without established reputations. But if they want to keep readers and attract other bloggers' links over the medium term, they need to provide provocative and interesting content. Otherwise, they're likely to fall by the wayside.
What seems to be suggested here is that issues are increasingly being determined by the fast paced discussions taking place online and that established academics are having difficulty keeping up with these discussions. A similar phenomenon or "tendency" (in Bergson's understanding of the term) can be observed with regard to the mainstream media, where increasingly blogs are taking the lead in breaking important stories and news organizations are merely disseminating these stories. Blogging also changes the status or nature of books, their "ontology". For instance, Jodi Dean's Zizek's Politics now becomes a moment in a broader discussion, due to her interaction with her readers on her blog. Where previously the publication of my study of Deleuze's transcendental empiricism might have established me as a respected scholar, my interaction here makes this publication an instance in an ongoing discussion where any claims I make there are only provisional and subject to revision down the road. In other words, the book increasingly becomes secondary to the ongoing discussion and the ever shifting categories and concepts that emerge from those discussions. These categories and concepts belong to no one in particular, but are collective productions that spin off in a number of different directions.

Off and on I've written about Christian nationalism in the United States. One of the reasons I find this movement so fascinating is that here we have a group that went from the margins and obscurity, to holding a dominant position within the political sphere. That is, something that was merely a small tendency within the American situation during the 70's, now holds the office of the Presidency, along with a number of seats in Congress. How do such fundamental changes in the symbolic fabric of a society take place? In this regard, I think there's a lot to be learned from the strategies of organization developed by these groups... Their letter writing campaigns, phone trees, instutitions such as churches and reading groups, etc. That is, regardless of how one feels about their politics and theology, Christian nationalism provides a model of how grass roots political movements with long term aims might be organized, and how a group goes about transforming the symbolic space of a social field.

Perhaps a term should be coined in the blogosphere for the emergence of more or less organized groups: the rhizosphere (does this term already exist? It should). The rhizosphere seems to function a bit like a slime mold. As Steven Johnson describes it in his popular science book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software,
The slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism, which then begins its leisurely crawl across the garden floor, consuming rotting leaves and wood as it moves about. When the environment is less hospitable, the slime mold acts as a single organism; when the weather turns cooler and the mold enjoys a large food supply, 'it' becomes a 'they'. The slime mold oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm. (13)
In short, slime molds are neither one nor many, but as Deleuze and Guattari would put it, an organization proper to the many. Interestingly, these collective organisms also show signs of intelligence and can be trained to navigate mazes. I'm not sure where I'm going with this bricolage of thoughts, but somehow they seem to be related to one another.

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December 30, 2008 12:23 AM  

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