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The Power of Blogs in Forming New Fields of International Study

Grant me the indulgence of a blog about blogs. I have been working recently in a field which overlaps with the area of philosophy that has come to be called “speculative realism.” The exact content of speculative realism need not concern us for long. Suffice it to say that it is an area of philosophy which, coming after the anti-realism evinced by those concerned with issues like texts and discourse, is trying to move back to realism, but of a different kind from the variants that have gone before. Most importantly, it wants to speculate about the nature of a reality that exists independently of human thought and humanity more broadly, a reality that exists outside human perception. This current of thought parallels a key effort of modern geography, my alma mater; the struggle to come to terms with what is called, variously, the environment or ecology or nature, a world which clearly intersects with the “social,” but can never be reduced to it.

Enough said. I am not trying to claim that everyone should be interested in the niceties of the debate that has unfolded (although, if they are, the writings of Graham Harman or Isabelle Stengers are a good place to start, as are collections like Bryant, Srnicek, and Harmans’s The Speculative Turn). Rather, I want to use it as an example of a recent development in how academe communicates with itself. For one thing that I have found really interesting about the turn to speculative realism is that is has clearly been fuelled by online communities which have turned above all to blogs as an important means of swapping material, revealing first thoughts, and making revisions. I doubt that the growth of speculative realism would have been so insistent without these communities scattered all over the world, or so rapid. Why?

First, they are a key preserve of particular communities like postgraduates and early career researchers, not least because so much activity can go on below the radar, so to speak, outside the attention of the kind of disciplinary policing that journals and other institutions tend to impose.

Second, they are a means for established figures to communicate in a different and more immediate register and often to become more prominent more quickly than might otherwise be the case.

Third, they are a much easier means of importing material from other disciplines, in ways which might be frowned upon if the material was to appear in formal outlets (I think that this is one of the ways that the work of philosophical fellow travellers like Latour was able to make its way into continental philosophy).

Fourth, they allow all manner of researchers to communicate with each other, establish reading groups and the like, often concerning intellectual alleyways which might prove of the greatest importance. There is real debate.

Fifth, new material reaches an audience much more rapidly than it would through the normal means of communication.

So did these blogs have an effect? I think that they did. In the case of speculative realism, they allowed the field to agglomerate more quickly than it otherwise would and to gain momentum faster than it otherwise would have. Get enough people to feel that they are in on something and they will want to diffuse it outwards. I think that they have also produced a field which is more heterodox than might otherwise have been the case, more willing to draw on traditions which were not avowedly philosophical: they contributed to an interdisciplinary formation which has one foot in philosophy but another in all manner of intellectual communities.

In other words, this chapter in intellectual history shows how a new variant of communication can have formative effects, and in fascinating ways. As a result of it and similar episodes in other fields, I am now quite sure that archiving the Internet is a worthwhile activity for intellectual historians of the future because, when the problem is reasonably well-specified, blogs can show communities worrying away at the issues in all but real time.

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