Small-gauge as Environmental and Ordinary

With this contribution to this issue's roundtable discussion, Scott Rodgers prompts us to think about how small-gauge modes of communication and scholarship are reconstituting the "environment" of the academic world.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Kevin Allen’s evocative genealogy of the notion “small-gauge” reminds us that formats and ethos are always intertwined. Alongside the contributions from Jennifer Heuson and Carla Nappi, all three of the preceding essays offer accounts of daring, creative, artistic, and subversive practices that provide inspiring windows into possible meanings of small-gauge scholarship. While all three touch on questions of form or technology, they quite rightly emphasize small-gauge as a new way of doing scholarship.

I cannot offer similar examples of small-gauge practice from my own work. In my initial response what I’d like to do instead is offer some observations which invert the emphasis slightly. I’d like to suggest it is also important for us to step back and think critically about the emergent forms of small-gauge scholarship. In particular, I will suggest we reflect on why small-gauge scholarship seems to be emerging at a time when academics – alongside artists, media practitioners, and others – are increasingly inhabiting and working through what José van Dijck calls “connective media”: interoperable, privately controlled, proprietary ecosystems such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, which have become so generalized that they are in some ways akin to traditional utilities.

To be sure, the rise of such connective media has meant that, in general, the thresholds for creating and circulating small-gauge scholarly work have been lowered. Even if the use of such platforms deserves careful scrutiny and critique, there is no doubt that they have become some of the main mediums through which scholarly work has begun to travel beyond the traditional “scholarly apparatus” (as Brendan Kredell put it in the introduction). But if we step back and consider such platforms as potentially basic conditions of possibility for contemporary small-gauge scholarship, we might also notice that small-gauge isn’t always boundary-pushing critical and creative practice. It’s also possible that small-gauge might include the proliferation of rather more low-level, provisional, ephemeral, and perhaps even ordinary forms of academic knowledge production.

This provisional nuance on the notion of small-gauge depends on seeing these platforms as not only, or even mainly, “tools” that are now available for providing scholarly or artistic accounts and narratives about the world. As I suggested in a blog post I wrote a few years back, communication apparatuses such as blogs or social media might be better understood as environments which present potentially transformative conditions of possibility for what academics think, do, and say. Twitter, for instance, has clearly emerged as one of the more important such academic environments. Environments are defined by their ambient qualities. Journalism studies scholar Alfred Hermida, for example, has suggested that Twitter creates a new form of “ambient journalism”: an always-on, asynchronous discursive space which has created for journalists new kinds of awareness of the worlds they inhabit. I think it creates similar environmental conditions for academics who use it.

Twitter itself is often described in terms of its communicative dimensions: that it’s a “microblogging” platform; a channel for hyper-fragmented expressions limited to 140 characters. But when this channel is overlaid on communities of practice, such as academia, it can also become an environmental extension of that world ( in the case of academia, Bonnie Stewart calls this environment “academic Twitter”). This is an environment that is inhabited by individual academics (who you know already, or who you’d like to know, or whose work you want to know about); but it is also a space in which academic departments, research centers, publishers, and of course journals such as Mediapolis can appear to one another, in a phenomenological sense. Twitter emerges as an environmental extension perhaps most clearly in the case of the Twitter “backchannels” we increasingly see at large academic conferences (the most recent in which I partook was #ica16). Such new forms of hypermediation both seem to interweave one environment with another in real time, but also stretch conferences out in time: they build up a kind of anticipatory time-space leading up to the scheduled event; and they leave in their wake a kind of drawn-out, collective epilogue.

It’s not entirely clear that Twitter directly supports small-gauge scholarship. That is to say, it is not clear it is a platform though which the scholarly method, per se, can thrive. This said, it is certainly true that the 140 character limit is an interesting stylistic affordance which is at once constraining and enabling. Parody accounts such as @AcademicMale and @AcademicsSay reveal a kind of social media poetics (perhaps akin to Ernest Hemingway’s “cablese”), through which humor and satire have found new ways of circulating through academia. But such interventions should still, I think, be situated in the networked and increasingly ordinary environmental backdrop of social media platforms, as backgrounds of academic life and knowledge production. I wholeheartedly agree with the ethos Jennifer Heuson articulates for small-gauge as “doing things slowly”; yet stream-based platforms such as Twitter appear to place a contrasting primacy on speed and abundance. They seem to support a more ephemeral knowledge production which is oriented to the future rather than the past (e.g. to later archival availability). As a small-gauge environment, platforms such as Twitter perhaps point to an ethos that values the novel, quirky, or interconnected. And this potentially sits uncomfortably with more established scholarly rules of the game, at least some of which we might want to preserve.

At the same time, for many, such platforms don’t so much undermine established scholarly rules of the game, but shift them in potentially progressive, transgressive, creative new directions. To (reluctantly) invoke Clay Shirky, perhaps we are seeing an emergent academia “run on love” more than institutions? Or at least an academic space in which academics might, as Carla Nappi suggests, present themselves as “whole selves.” While I don’t suspect Carla has a platform like Facebook in mind, such platforms do to some extent rupture excessively formalized academic expression, creating openings between the personal and professional. As danah boyd points out, there seems to be an inherent “context collapse” built into the architectures of many social networking platforms, and especially Facebook. In the classic dramaturgical analysis of Erving Goffman, the performative self-presentation of face-to-face interaction was tied to specific contexts: one presents themselves differently, to different parties, because such encounters are separated by environmental contexts. But in an environment such as Facebook, my family members are also exposed to my thoughts and activities as an academic; and my academic “friends” see what my children are up to. I’m unsure if this is necessarily a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, it could make possible a more honest, generous, and transparent academia. On the other hand, of course, Facebook is often seen to be a platform for the expression of various forms of narcissism, academic and otherwise.

It is precisely because small-gauge scholarship can and should be an ethos which seeks to transcend some of the more conservative trappings of the established scholarly apparatus that we must be alert to its forms and environments. Increasingly, the more “ordinary” connective media I allude to here are not so much transgressing the scholarly apparatus, but becoming incorporated into or normalized within it. This does not mean that such mediated environments hold no promise for more autonomous academic knowledge production. As my Birkbeck colleague Martin Eve argues better than I ever could, our contemporary technical ecologies provide ways to, for example, create new open-access platforms (such as the Open Library for the Humanities) that at least partly subvert the unfair lock-down of academic free labor in the service of private publishing companies. Just as importantly, such technical ecologies clearly do provide unprecedented possibilities for academic creativity and expression, as illustrated very well by the preceding roundtable essays. But they do not automatically or unproblematically do so. Only through critical and self-reflexive awareness will academics, scholars, and fellow travelers be able to nimbly navigate the choppy waters and strong currents of our contemporary digital and networked worlds.

Photo by The Preiser Project

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