Massive Multi-Thinker Online Reviews

by John Holbo on July 12, 2005

I’ve been on sabbatical from CT, working on the Valve and, by extension, pushing pet notions about academic publishing reform. These notions have now born fruit in the form of a book event, conducted more or less on the model of similar events pioneered at CT – massive, multi-thinker online reviews. The book is Theory’s Empire, an anthology of essays critical of Theory – the ofless stuff, mostly indigenous to English departments. Several posts up so far, and several bloggers – inside and outside the Valve – lined up to participate over the next several days. Please feel free to drop by and join the conversation if this sounds interesting. Next month we’ve got a different book lined up: The Literary Wittgenstein. I wrote a long review of it for NDPR about a month back. Under the fold, some general thoughts about academic e-publishing.

These book events are an attempt to follow through on a loud declaration made in my inaugural Valve post, which was typically holbonic in length, so I’ll extract an executive summary-style bullet point:

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed – should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book – i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed – that is not given it’s own blog comment box – has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born.

I argue that this is particularly true of literary studies, which is the especial focus of my reforming impulses. But it seems to me the point applies, with varying degrees of acuteness and urgency, to the humanities generally, and perhaps the social sciences. The basic idea – certainly it is not new – is that the scholarly reputation economy lags behind the technology curve. I don’t think anyone really denies this. But what do you think about my normative principle? I say ‘blog comment box’ but obviously that’s just pointing to a thing we all know by way of conjuring an indefinite possibility.

In an ideal world, would building an e-forum and stocking it with participants make sense as a presumptively standard feature of humanities book publishing? And perhaps of journal publishing, if you cared to extend the scope of the principle? I perfectly well see that this proposal is radical. If every publication goes with a big symposium, it follows that most academics have to devote most of their ‘research’ efforts not to publishing their own work but to participating in symposia on the works of others. It is realistic to object that this tectonic shift in favor of ‘reviewing’, broadly conceived, just isn’t going to happen. But it may still be clarifying to ask, in a ‘let’s sketch our ideal Republic of ideas’ spirit: would it be better? The proposal is obviously one that admits of degrees of implementation, so one can perfectly well admit the ideal is unattainable, while still taking it as your target.

For those of you who aren’t academics and couldn’t possibly muster interest in this question: what is the worst superhero movie ever made? I watched “Elektra” last night, so today I say: “Elektra” is worst. But this probably fails to take the long view.



Kieran Healy 07.13.05 at 12:33 am

I still prefer “Holbovian.”


Farah 07.13.05 at 2:34 am

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities …– should have it’s own lively blog comment box

Agreed. See The Inter-Galactic Playground for a blog attached to a book project. Although in this case the blog is there as my research diary, it will stay up after the book is published.


dsquared 07.13.05 at 3:28 am

The Batman film with Nicole Kidman in it was pretty terrible, and I heard that the one after that was worse, so I’d guess that one.


Kieran Healy 07.13.05 at 4:00 am

What about the last Superman one? Where he rids the world of nuclear weapons?


Russell Arben Fox 07.13.05 at 7:53 am

If every publication goes with a big symposium, it follows that most academics have to devote most of their ‘research’ efforts not to publishing their own work but to participating in symposia on the works of others. It is realistic to object that this tectonic shift in favor of ‘reviewing’, broadly conceived, just isn’t going to happen. But it may still be clarifying to ask, in a ‘let’s sketch our ideal Republic of ideas’ spirit: would it be better?

A short point, one you’ve no doubt made somewhere else, John: it is entirely, and I think persuasively, arguable that much of the very best academic philosophy, political theory, and cultural commentary has arisen in the context of just such reviewing. Many thinkers best express themselves only while engaging with the expressions of another. Certainly that was the case for one of your intellectual heroes, Isaiah Berlin, as well as for one of mine, J.G. Herder.

I never saw Superman IV, but I hear Catwoman, which I also never saw, was really the bottom of the barrell.


Jacob T. Levy 07.13.05 at 9:19 am

There’s an agreed-upon list of candidates, right? Catwoman, Superman IV, Batman and Robin, some would say LXG, and apparently some would say Elektra. I think Supergirl is an underappreciated disaster– that is, it gets left off these lists just because people have forgotten it ever happened.

Excluding direct-to-video crap like the first Fantastic Four “movie”; but wasn’t there a Dolph Lundgren (or someone similar) Punisher movie that went to theaters?

Haven’t seen Elektra. But I’d be surprised if it were actually worse than all these. I’ll stick with Superman IV.


Robin 07.13.05 at 9:45 am

Elektra is not as bad as the George Clooney Batman with the Mr. Freeze lackeys made up like hockey players and attacking people with hockey sticks and skating like Icescapades.


baa 07.13.05 at 10:04 am

Jacob Levy’s list of canonical examples is an excellent start. It also gives perspective. The new Fantastic Four movie? Compared to Batman and Robin, not so bad!

I would argue that an important element in evaluation needs to be degree of difficulty. It’s not a surprise, really, that a movie of “The Punisher” was bad. Putting the Batman franchise into an eight year coma, by contrast: very impressive.


Harry 07.13.05 at 11:21 am

Dolph Lundgren did worse than the Punisher: the stunning Masters of the Universe. But every cloud has a silver lining — the interview he did when publicising it with Jonathan Ross sticks in my mind as one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life; Ross ridiculed him relentlessly, and Lundgren was too stupid and too humourless to realise. Fantastic. But, though I’ve never seen those Batman movies, I simply don’t believe they’re as bad as Masters of the Universe (which I have seen).


Russell Arben Fox 07.13.05 at 11:49 am

Wait, wait! If we can include Harry’s nomination of Masters of the Universe, then surely we also must include Steel!

Or perhaps we ought to expand Jacob’s reasonable exclusion of direct-to-video junk to include also any superhero movies whose source material is obviously second-rate (or worse) to begin with. In which case, we’re back to his list of the usual suspects.


Jacob T. Levy 07.13.05 at 12:13 pm

Ooh, I’d blocked out Steel. Good one, Russell. And I’d maintain that Steel was (at least sometimes) a more-than-respectable superhero comic with a perfectly filmable premise; the movie doesn’t have the excuse of intrinsically second-rate source material.

Masters of the Universe raises the usual genre-boundary questions. Seems to me part of sword-and-sorcery, not superheroes, notwithstanding the Shazam! moment. More Conan-for-kids than Superman. (I suppose LXG doesn’t quite count, either– but the source material is an Alan Moore comic, not a toy-marketing cartoon.)


Kragen Sitaker 07.13.05 at 12:53 pm

Please allow me, a non-academic, to bloviate upon the purpose of the academy for a moment.

Academic publishing, in books, journals, conferences, or whatever, is not intended to provoke immediate responses. It’s not a bad thing if it does (unless the immediate responses are “this work is nonsense”) — it just isn’t the point. Academic publishing is intended to provoke further work, either publishable or practical.

Now, it may be that some of that future work can fit well into a blog comment box, but generally blog comments leave something to be desired in findability, citability (in the sense of having a stable URL and correct attribution), and permanence. Who here can find all the blog comments they themselves have left? But the worst indictment of blog comments, as a form for scholarly discussion, is the obsession of the form with recency and rapidity of response. Comment on a post from six months ago, and your comment will never be read, by anyone.

I don’t think that this would necessarily result in good work not getting done, or not getting published. I suspect that many discussions in such a forum would culminate in publishable works.

So I agree that any academic publication should have associated with it some perennial public online symposium, but perhaps we have not yet found the correct format for that symposium. At present, I’m using e-mail mailing lists, and they have their severe deficiencies.


HP 07.13.05 at 2:02 pm

So, while you debate the worst-ever superhero movie, can I just remind that you all that Mario Bava’s 1968 “Danger: Diabolik” is now out in a brand-new DVD? This adaptation of the Italian fumetti about the master criminal/anti-hero is by generally acclaimed as the finest comics-to-cinema adaptation ever made.

I watched it for the first time a few weeks ago, and I’m still getting thrills recalling it.


Down and Out in Saigon 07.13.05 at 8:38 pm

You’re all wrong. It’s Howard the Duck.


jholbo 07.14.05 at 12:24 am

Yes, Howard the Duck is a serious contender. But there’s something so charmingly ill-advised about it. “Elektra” is just cynically sleek. A think so calculated to catch they eye – like a car commercial – that the eye just slides off out of boredom.

Response to Kragen Sitaker: yes, it was quite wrong to say ‘comment box’ rather than ‘group blog’, by way of invoking the indefinite possibility I have in mind. The goal of my little events is to garner a collection of thoughtful posts by numerous discussants, rather than a whole trail of off-the-cuff comments. (Comments are welcome and add value, but they certainly aren’t, and can’t be, the focus.)

The problem is indeed that blogs are locked into the news-cycle pace. The datestamp is sort of a curse that way. We need something like the efficient form but without the manic pace.

As to the question of whether academic work is supposed to provoke immediate response: there is certainly work that is meant for the ages – or the decades, at least – and shouldn’t be expected to generate a cloud of instant discussion. One should be able to excuse such work from what I am proposing. But there is also a sense in which the convenient fiction of the long view simply serves as polite concealment for overproduction. (I talk about this more in the original post.)

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