Blog Post

Institutionality vs. the Blogs: Questions for HASTAC Scholars

There are many myths within the political blogosphere, but none is so deeply troubling or so highly treasured by mainstream political bloggers than this: that the political blogosphere contains within it the whole range of respectable political opinion, and that once an issue has been thoroughly debated therein, it has had a full and fair hearing. The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.

Freddie deBoer's recent post on the dominance of neoliberalism in the progressive blogosphere -- and his assertion of an attendant "blindspot" towards both socialist leftism and labor-oriented politics -- has been circulating widely on blogs and Twitter. (See, for instance, replies from targets of the criticism Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Jonathan Chait.) What interests me about this post is the way it raises the issue of institutional support, and how the myth of a free and open blogosphere, in which the dominance of particular ideas is determined solely and completely by their relative merit, is complicated and significantly undermined by both pre-existing social and professional networks and (especially) asymmetrical institutional support:

All of this sounds merely like an indictment, but I genuinely have a great deal of sympathy for those young rising politicos and bloggers who are constitutionally disposed to be left-wing. What they find, as they rise, is a blogging establishment that delivers the message again and again that to be professionally successful, they must march ever-rightward. That's where the money is, after all. For every Nation or FireDogLake, there is an Atlantic or Slate, buttressed by money from the ruling class whose interests are defended with gusto by the neoliberal order. I have followed more than a few eager young bloggers as they have been steadily pushed to the right by the institutional culture of Washington DC, where professional entitlement and social success come part and parcel with an acceptance that "this is a center-right nation" is God's will. I wish they wouldn't move in that direction, but I don't know what great choice many of them have; blogging is an aspirational culture, and there is an endless number of young strivers, emboldened by unexamined privilege and the kind of confidence that can only come from having money you didn't earn, ready to take the place of those who step out of line.

The professionalization of the blogosphere is something that has already been widely noted, but deBoer extends the critique of the blogosphere by pointing out specific ways in which the material realities of professionalization have impacted both the form and content of blog commentary, using ThinkProgress's Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. Both were independent bloggers at the start of the blogging era in the early 2000s -- and both have since been hired (co-opted?) by Old Media institutions, as most of the big names from the early days of blogging have been to one extent or another.

For a further example -- and to pick on Matt Yglesias just a little bit more -- we might recall what happened when he criticized the Third Way at a blog hosted by "partner institution" the Center for American Progress:

This is Jennifer Palmieri, acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Most readers know that the views expressed on Matts blog are his own and dont always reflect the views of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Such is the case with regard to Matts comments about Third Way. Our institution has partnered with Third Way on a number of important projects including a homeland security transition project and have a great deal of respect for their critical thinking and excellent work product. They are key leaders in the progressive movement and we look forward to working with them in the future.

This intervention was widely criticized both in Yglesias's comments and around the blogosphere, and will likely not be repeated -- but as Zizek has frequently reminded us, we should look for true censorship not in what one is punished for saying, but rather in what everybody already knows better than to say, in the things no one will say at all.

But -- putting aside politics for the moment -- deBoer's post raises additional questions more specific to HASTAC members when he notes, in his first update, another institutional elephant in the room: the university system itself. Simply about our own research, we at HASTAC might do well to ask ourselves more generally: how do the institutions with which we are affiliated shape the work we do, both on this site and off it? How do we separate -- if we ever can separate -- the rise of the digital humanities in the free and open "marketplace of ideas" from a desire (however unacknowledged or even unconscious) for access to the funds, copious resources, and jobs that universities nationwide have proved quite happy to devote to it? How does the relentless drive towards professionalization impact what we do, again not only at HASTAC but in all our work as graduate students? How have our seemingly independent, seemingly self-generated research interests been shaped by the institutional (and economic) contexts in which we work? What ideas do we emphasize; what sorts of ideas are cast aside, or left unsaid? How are we censored -- and how do we censor ourselves?

Like the myth of a free, independent, and meritocratic blogosphere that deBoer and the other linked writers explode, I do not think we can imagine our work to be immune from the shaping (and, at the extreme, corrupting) influence of institutionality. We must be self-critical enough to ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions: to what extent do we drive our funding institutions -- and to what extent do they drive us?

There are, of course, many questions here. I don't presume to have answers.

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In this respect the inevitable disclaimer "putting aside politics for the moment" looks like nothing so much as a necessary ceremonial disavowal, or at best an obvious feint -- because "politics" is always exactly what's at stake in any question of self-censorship, both here at HASTAC and everywhere else...

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