bookmark_borderEverybody’s Authority

The incursion of the unwanted thus seems to be part of the risk of thinking with others, part of the vulnerability of opening oneself, one’s words and one’s thoughts, to anyone who might venture upon them.

—Jodi Dean, “Blogging Theory

Ah, the peace and quiet that follows a “block” on twitter.

—Saree Makdisi, Twitter

One day in 2012, while a presidential election campaign was in full swing, I wrote a blog post and hit “publish.” The post was pretty niche, I thought—the ninth in a series of posts that I had been tagging “puerility,” all incipient ideas for a future project that would draw on childhood studies, history of statistics, and poetics. With “puerility,” I sought to describe a ludic epistemological mode that draws its power from its very willingness to disclaim power and embrace provisionality—an ambivalence often figured through, and associated with, boyhood. Previous blogging on puerility had mused over the Google N-gram Viewer and the widespread propensity to describe it as a “fun” “toy”; the foul-mouthed parody Twitter account @MayorEmanuel, and Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. The new post was about election predictions and a recent media flap around the statistician Nate Silver.

I was halfway down a badly damaged post-Hurricane Sandy east coast, at a workshop at the University of Maryland, College Park, before I realized that, due to Silver’s celebrity and thanks to a senior economist’s denunciation, the piece had “jumped platforms.” From my usual audience of mostly junior fellow humanities academics, most of them known to me in person, the piece had moved to a different audience, to whom conceptual frameworks that I take for granted were both alien and offensive: the literary distinction between person and persona, the gender studies distinction between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of gendering, the history of science premise that the making of facts is both social and processual. While I placidly took notes at the University of Maryland library, the comments—mostly anonymous, and mostly angry—piled higher and higher.

What gave my esoteric “puerility” post such wide circulation, and why was that circulation particularly pronounced within a wholly unintended and (nominally) wholly unreceptive public? I wish here to sketch out a few conjectures around the nature of what the editors of this special section have called the “semipublic,” which I will suggest is particularly apt for the present phase of academic blogging. Blogging, in its heyday a decade ago, seemed to promise a new, potentially more democratic and more public form of academic engagement, as the historian Dan Cohen memorably explained in a 2006 post energetically titled, “Professors, Start Your Blogs.” Yet as its costs—and those costs’ uneven distribution across different classes of actors—have become increasingly visible, it has also brought more general dynamics of public discourse into relief. Far from constituting an ethereal, “virtual” realm apart, the semipublic web seems to enact the vicissitudes of print and televisual circulation in even more intensive forms, powerfully renewing questions about “public” and “private” speech and the norms that we assign to each.


The above is an excerpt from my short essay “Everybody’s Authority.” A preprint is available here [pdf].

Thanks to the wonderful Miriam Posner and Lili Loofbourow for comments on earlier drafts of the essay.