Thursday, November 18, 2010

John Henry Newman and neighborly, safely antagonistic book blogging

A recent John Henry Newman argument, step by step.  Roger Scruton, in The American Spectator, argues for “a wholly new kind of university” based, somehow, on the principles of The Idea of a University.  Good luck with that!  Miriam Burstein warns Scruton, and me, that Newman’s argument is founded on his Catholic faith, even, at times, when he specifically claims otherwise.  Reader beware.  When Newman defends knowledge for its own sake, one of the “aims” he leaves unspecified is certainly a strengthening or even discovery of Catholic religious principles.  Not sharing those principles myself, I am left dangling.

D. G. Myers asks if anything is then recoverable from Newman for anyone outside of a Catholic university or a similar institution.  His central point, as I understand it, is correct, that the educators and administrators of the modern university do not have a cohesive purpose, not like Newman envisioned, and are often openly antagonistic.  One could defend this state of affairs, but not with Newman’s arguments.

Burstein plucks a single quotation from Newman, almost a single word:

[R]eally, Gentlemen, I am making no outrageous request, when, in the name of a University, I ask religious writers, jurists, economists, physiologists, chemists, geologists, and historians, to go on quietly, and in a neighbourly way, in their own respective lines of speculation, research, and experiment, with full faith in the consistency of that multiform truth, which they share between them.  (“Christianity and Scientific Investigation,” 341, emphasis mine)

I have made an excerpt from Prof. Burstein's excerpt of a marvelously long, twisty sentence.  My slice makes Newman’s idea seem outrageous simply because he denies it is.  Still – quietly, neighborly.  I prefer, as more achievable, a similar metaphor from a bit earlier in the same discourse:

In this point of view, its several professors are like the ministers of various political powers at one court or conference.  They represent their respective sciences, and attend to the private interests of those sciences respectively; and, should dispute arise between those sciences, they are the persons to talk over and arrange it, without risk of extravagant pretensions on any side, of angry collision, or of popular commotion.  A liberal philosophy becomes the habit of minds thus exercised; a breadth and spaciousness of thought, in which lines, seemingly parallel, may converge at leisure, and principles, recognized as incommensurable, may be safely antagonistic. (337)

“Safely antagonistic” – even that, I would not want to take for granted, but it seems possible.  My PhD is from a program based on, known for, its seminar model.  All research of any seriousness was presented at safely antagonistic public seminars.  The professional standards were impeccable.  The audience, every member, typically, had read the paper in advance.  We played havoc with any intended presentation or slide show.  We skipped straight to the good stuff, by which I mean, the weakest arguments and evidence.  We were brutal.  To the extent that I am a competent professional in my field, it’s because of these seminars.

I have wondered if this safe antagonism can be replicated on book blogs.  It seems so difficult.  In the seminar room, every participant knew the rules and the limits of combat.  On the internet, I’m afraid not.  I try to respect the signals bloggers send about how aggressively they want to be challenged, but I’ll bet I misread them a lot, so mostly, I play it safe and try not to be a jerk.  Too big of a jerk.  Perhaps a more explicitly collaborative model makes more sense.

I have imagined digital stickers pasted to the top of the blog – “Have at me” (I’d use that one) or “Play nice” or “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

Have at me!  I'll thank you later. Maybe, ha ha, a lot later. It’s for my own good, the furthering of my liberal education. Maybe for your good, too.


  1. I think book bloggers who share and even welcome your "have at me" philosophy will tend to have more interesting discussions going on in their comments threads. Unfortunately, I've also seen a fair number of other book bloggers who actively discourage debate because they are unduly shy, easily rattled, or don't want "confrontation." In other words, they want you to be honest with them--as long as you agree with what they're saying. I like your proposition better myself.

  2. "...can safe antagonism can be replicated on book blogs?"

    Some can; others can't.

    The have-at-mes and the stick-it-to-mes often advertise themselves with bold, intriguing, or suggestive claims.

    Even spurious claims do the trick, too.

    For the past month, I've been trying to correct a persistent philosophical mistake over at A Memory Theater.

    While I haven't succeeded, the conversations have been absolutely pleasant and cordial and respectful.


  3. The optimistic case, as Kevin suggests, I think, is that we are in the middle of ongoing negotiations and experiments regarding the rules of operation. Those grad school seminars were 50 years old by the time I was there!

    But the fact is that I often just can't tell what the etiquette is at a given writer's home. I fear Richard is mostly right.

    One key signal, and you both mention it, is that the writer actually has to make an argument, even if utterly wrong, for a discussion to even begin. Many blog writers seem to deliberately avoid making an argument. Thus, my suspicion of the word "reaction," as in "this is just my reaction to a book."

  4. While the structure (and thus clear expectation) of your graduate seminars was obviously key to their success, the preparation of the participants is also key. I think it's the latter, more than the former, that prevents blogging from acheiving the same sort of great exchange of ideas. It is certainly easier to set up at least ones own blog as a place where antagonism is encouraged than to have an audience prepared to antagonize with actual literary support.

  5. A "Have at me!" sticker might be a good idea. Most of the books reviewed on blogs don't inspire much in the way of debate, nor do most of the blog posts.

    We had more than a few shouting matches at the book club I belong to and always managed to walk away friends in the end. I don't see why the same can't be ture with book blogs.

  6. I don't want to encourage antagonism on my blog. But I do want to have debates, and I have no problem with people disagreeing with me. I think the difference is that in one case the reader/listener is looking ONLY for things with which to disagree, whereas I've learned as much from people making arguments I agree with, or which spur my thought in a different direction than it would have gone otherwise, than I have from ripping apart others' arguments. Ripping apart arguments has its place, of course, but I wouldn't want to confuse that brutality itself with intellectual rigor. Other readers have a lot to add to my experience, and I think there's value in openly acknowledging that and building upon it. So I suppose I'd opt less for a "Have at me!" sticker and more a "Let's talk!" one.

    Also - I've been in (undergrad) seminars something like the ones you describe, in both literature (where I felt very comfortable) and visual art (where I did not). The two experiences were NOTHING alike. In the lit seminars I felt challenged, alive, like I was growing and learning and improving in a craft I owned. In the ones on visual art (drawing and painting) I felt incredibly vulnerable and scared, because I was just starting out and didn't have any confidence in my abilities. It was NOT helpful to have people pointing out everything that was wrong with my drawings; it was just discouraging and frustrating, and made me want to stop drawing forever. I think many book-bloggers are still at this fragile, early stage of building a practice of writing about reading, which I try to keep in mind. As you say, though, reading signals is sometimes challenging.

  7. I love debate but feel uncomfortable with antagonistic approaches. Partly that's personal - I think whatever you have to say, you can say it politely and with respect. But partly it's a professional choice: I've seen too many discussions become polarised and futile because aggressive questioning put all the participators on the defensive. I think a better debate comes out of signalled willingness to at least consider everyone's point of view, and that was how I would run seminars in life, and how I like to run my blog. But everyone is different and there are plenty of more vigorous debates to be had online for those who want them.

  8. See, these are good comments. I must be on to something.

    1. By no means do I believe that everyone should want my sticker. Emily's drawing critique experience or Sparkling Squirrel's comment suggests another sticker - "Maybe someday but not yet!"

    2. Maybe I should have been explicit about what I meant by a collaborative model. To stick to this year, I was thinking of two different "events" with bibliographing nicole, the week James Hogg and the enormously popular Clarel readalong. Each day built on the one before. Thoses were great (for me!), really productive, although a lot of work. Not a hint of antagonism!

    Emily, say I replace "brutal" with "thorough" - every footnote, every number, every argument was examined, every hidden assumption was dragged into the light. It was an ordeal, but the seminar was in fact collaborative - we were all working to improve the research. Do you want those tough questions here, in a noisy but safe space, or do you want to hear them for the first time while interviewing for a job?

    I mean, in the end I agree with Emily and litlove, that in the undefined environment of the internet, antagonism has to be suppressed, that it is all too likely to become unsafe. Something present at C.B.'s book club is missing here, and I wish I better understood what could replace it. Time, experience, attention, I guess.

  9. Absolutely fascinating conversation. And I probably would want Emily's "Let's Talk" label, rather than the "Have at Me" one. Like Emily and Litlove, I don't mind disagreement, but I prefer people to be civil about it.

    I do wonder sometimes how often we in the book blogging community ignore areas of disagreement or avoid saying something controversial just out of fear of conflict. Civil debate and discussion can be so helpful and productive. But I know I've been known to duck controversial discussions out of fear of being misconstrued. I've learned that some bloggers take offense very quickly and then it becomes a whole big drama, and I am so not interested in that.

  10. The assumption that "Have at Me," or for that matter what Newman and I are calling "antagonism," is not civil is incorrect. My graduate school seminars were impeccably civil. They taught professional behavior.

    But participants spent the limited time asking the difficult questions, not the easy ones. Not just "I disagree with..." but "you are wrong about...", followed by an actual argument, with logic and evidence. To use litlove's formulation, all points of view were considered. I consider everyone's point of view on this very blog. But some point's of view are better argued than others. Whether I agree with them is inconsequential.

    When my argument is fallacious, or based on bad evidence, I want to know. When I am wrong, I want someone to tell me. Otherwise, I will be wrong, in the exact same way, or worse, again and again.

  11. Ah, I see what you mean. I think what I often see that I find frustrating is people getting upset because they assume they know what their interlocuter is getting at, when in fact they are misunderstanding--sometimes because of poor expression on the part of the blogger, sometimes because of poor interpretation on the part of the reader. And then things blow up and there's indignance all around. (I'm sure we've all seen comment wars, enhanced by Twitter, that have at their root a misunderstanding.)

    So, for my part, I think questioning a person can often be a good, nonthreatening way to get a conversation going.

  12. That's it, that's it - the most difficult part of online debate. In person, with luck, many of those smallish misunderstandings can be cleared up quickly. Online, even working on a small point can be so laborious. When the face to face discussions explode, its usually over big misunderstandings.

    Unless one or more parties are incorrigible hotheads. Different issue, I guess.

    I wish I had written what you wrote at the end. Direct questions, that's just how they should work. The questioner should be genuinely curious about the answer. That's how I try to use them, at least.

  13. What an interesting conversation! I'm with Emily and the others who would like a "let's talk" sticker. I think part of the difficulty of having a discussion of the sort you describe on a blog is that all we have are the words and some are better than others at choosing those words. Without facial expressions, body language and tone of voice it is difficult when challenged to know how to interpret that challenge and that's when people get angry and feelings get hurt. I think a good many bloggers aren't really looking for debate, they just want to share their reading experiences and sometimes it takes awhile to figure out sort of comments a person is open to.

  14. Stefanue, I agree. I'm fundamentally pessimistic that the kind of discussion that I found so valuable in another setting can be replicated on the internet in any but a tightly limited way. The reasons you describe are surely central to the problem.

    I mean, I'm kind of joking about the stickers, but there have been cases where they would have been very helpful!

  15. A very belated comment--but your post made me think about my own grad school experiences. In seminars, we learned to rip books apart, rooting out every little flaw. Then when we sat down to write our dissertations--and all we knew how to spot problems but not how fix them, or how to appreciate the good parts.

  16. I should be clearer - these seminars were for original research, and not just student work. One week, I present my work, the next week, the senior scholar in the field presents his. The standards were identical each time.

    We definitely learned to fix our problems, and to appreciate the good parts!

  17. What an excellent experience. We really only got to critique books by scholars who were not in the room--then our own. (Strangely, my father's book was taught in a few of the classes I took. I chose to remain anonymous. But that experience was the closest thing to what you are talking about.)

    For those of us capable of making an argument in another field and then having it dissected--but not yet ready to make a strong argument about literature--what do you suggest as a way to become more confident in our literary analysis?

    I'm playing with the beginnings of a post for next week where I try to make connections between two books. But I realize I'm making it up as I go along and don't have the kind of support for my arguments that I had in grad seminars. I'm going to put it out there in hopes that people will help me think it though and expand my thinking--but I don't want to be told I'm stupid for making such a claim. I'm not really making a claim--just raising a question and giving a first volley in the discussion to build something stronger. Does that make any sense?

  18. How to become more confident - what a good question. My favorite tools are nervous bluster and obscure jokes. Those might not work for everyone.

    You saw a later return to the idea, but I recommend a couple of things I wrote concurrent with last year's Book Blogger Week, here and here - "speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly."

    I'm not so sure I haven't said anything so different than what you say in your last paragraph, which makes perfect sense. And anybody says you're stupid, ban 'em. Splat!