Writing, Academic and Otherwise

Passing through the process of academic professionalization is, in part, not unlike the process of learning a new language. It is, for example, the sort of process that might lead me to write discourse in place of language to conclude that first sentence. Learning this new language can be both an infuriating and exhilarating experience. At first, the new language mystifies, baffles, and frustrates; later, if one sticks to it and if this new language is not utter nonsense (as it may sometimes be), there is a certain thrill in being able to see and name previously unseen (because unnamed) and poorly understood dimensions of experience.

I suspect the younger one happens to be when this initiating process takes place, the more zealously one may take to this new language, allowing it to become the grid through which all experience is later comprehended. This is, on the whole, an unfortunate tendency. Another unfortunate tendency is that by which, over time, academics forget that theirs is a learned and often obscure language which they acquired only after months and possibly years of training. This is easily forgotten, perhaps because it is only metaphorically a new language. It is, if you are American, still English, but a peculiarly augmented (or deformed, depending on your perspective) form of the language.

This means, usually, that when academics (or academics in training) write, they write in a way that might not be easily assimilated by non-academics. This is, of course, entirely unrelated to intellect or ability (a point that is sometimes missed). A brilliant Spaniard, for instance, is no less brilliant for having never taken the time to learn Swahili. This is also a function of the tribal quality of academic life. One gets used to operating in the language of the tribe and sometimes forgets to adjust to accordingly when operating in other contexts.

Again, I think this is very often simply a matter of habit and forgetfulness, although, it is sometimes a matter of arrogance, self-importance, and other such traits of character.

I mention all of this because, if I were asked to verbalize why I write this blog, I would say that it was in part to translate the work of academics, critics, and theorists into a more accessible form so that their insights regarding the meaning and consequences of media and technology, so far as those insights were useful, might be more widely known. After all, the technologies I usually write about affect so many of us, academics and non-academics alike. Anyone who cares to think about how to navigate these technologies as wisely as possible should be able to encounter the best thinking on such matters in a reasonably accessible form. I don’t know, maybe there is a certain naïveté in that aspiration, but it seems worth pursuing.

I’m fairly certain, though, that I don’t always achieve this goal that I half-consciously maintain for what I do here. I’m writing this post mostly to remind myself of this aspiration and renew my commitment to it.

I should be clear, I’m talking neither about dumbing down what there is to know nor am I suggesting anything like condescension ought to be involved. The challenge is to maintain the depth of insight and to resist the over-simplification of complexity while at the same time avoiding the characteristics of academic language that tend to make it inaccessible. It’s a matter of not ignoring the non-academic reader while also taking them seriously.

I’m reminded of some comments that David Foster Wallace made regarding the purposes of literature. I’ve cited this passage before, quite some time ago, and it has stuck with me. It’s a bit long, but worth reading. Wallace is discussing literature with the interviewer, David Lipsky, and they are debating the relative merits of traditional literature and less traditional, more avant-garde writing:

Huh.  Well you and I just disagree.  Maybe the world just feels differently to us.  This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear:  that avant-garde stuff is hard to read.  I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff — this is gonna get very abstract — but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.”  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely.

There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake.  That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction — sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of the photograph — that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff.  As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes.  And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change.  And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along.  And that’s what’s precious about it.

And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious.  Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

Maybe it is ill-advised to make this comparison, but I think what Wallace has to say here, or at least the spirit of what he is saying can apply to academic work as well. It can also be a way of representing what it feels like to be alive. I tend to hold literature in rather high esteem, so I don’t think that non-fiction can really replicate the experience of more literary writing, but it can be useful in its own way. It can help make sense of experience. It can generate self-understanding. It can suggest new possibilities for how to make one’s way in the world.

It’s too late for new year’s resolutions, but I’m hoping to keep this goal more clearly in focus as I continue to write on here. You can tell me, if you’re so inclined, how well I manage. Cheers.


The past two years I have written a post on the day of Thanksgiving related to the theme of gratitude. The first of these reflected briefly on some lines from G.K. Chesterton and a stanza of poetry from Wendell Berry. The second explored the possibility of taking a sense of gratitude as a measure of technology. If two consecutive instances constitute a tradition of sorts, then I want to maintain the tradition while deviating just slightly from precedent by posting today, on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Also, rather than offering any thoughts on gratitude, my own or another’s, I’ll take the opportunity to pass along my thanks to you, those of you who have taken the time to read, comment, and pass along what you’ve read here to others.

When I started this blog in earnest a little over two years ago, I had little sense of how the endeavor would play out. I’m pleased to report that it has played out quite well by my estimation (even if it hasn’t quite resulted in fame and fortune!). I’m grateful for the opportunity to clarify my thinking through the act of writing for a (modest) public, and I’m grateful for the further clarification that has arisen from the interactions that followed. I’m grateful as well for the generous mentions this blog has received from others. And I’m grateful for the opportunities to write for other venues that have arisen over the past year or so. All of this, of course, arises directly from your generosity.

So then, thank you.

And, of course, happy Thanksgiving.

Writing To An Imagined Audience … Suggestions Welcome

Audience, as the etymology suggests, originally involved hearing and, hence, speaking face-to-face; in which case you would know exactly who you were communicating to and, presumably, to what end. The paradox of referring to the “audience” of written communication reminds us of the more difficult task of communicating when the parties involved have been abstracted from one another in space and time.

So who’s my audience?

I know a few personally, I’ve come to know a few virtually through comments, but for the most part it is an invisible audience that I nonetheless find myself wanting to address in a meaningful manner.

Having said this, I’m curious to know why you take the time to read The Frailest Thing.

I was reminded by a comment today that most of the readers of this blog are “silent readers,” and that is fine of course. I’m not a very loud reader myself. But as I think about what to write, it couldn’t hurt to have some ideas of the kind of posts that readers find most helpful. What would you like to read more about? Which posts do you just skip over? What can I do to improve the quality of posts? Are there topics I don’t write enough about? Topics I write about too much? In short, what would make this a better blog? No need to pull punches.

If you have the time to spare, drop me a comment below or send me an email — LMSacasas at gmail dot com.

And of course, for whatever reason you do so, thanks for reading!

Additions to the Blogroll

Along with the updated look comes an updated blogroll. In no particular order, here are the additions:

Snarkmarket: Commentary on technology, culture, media, design, and more from (primarily) three very sharp guys: Tim Carmody, Robin Sloan, and Matt Thompson.

Aca/Fan: Henry Jenkins’ blog. Jenkins is a leading scholar of new media and popular culture.

Brainpickings: Curated by Maria Popova. I’m not sure how she has time for anything else, like eating and breathing for example, given the time she must spend finding all of the fascinating stuff that makes it onto the site each day.

Rod Dreher’s Blog: Dreher, the author of Crunchy-Cons, is a thoughtful voice on the Right. He speaks for a brand of conservatism that sits uneasily, if at all, within the Republican Party — a Wendell Berry style conservatism.

How to Be A Retronaut: Always interesting and sometimes fascinating assortment of objects from the past. Those with a nostalgic bent beware, you may get stuck on the site for longer than you would want to admit.

The Technium: Kevin Kelly’s blog. I’m not always on board with Kelly, one of the founding editors of Wired Magazine, but he is always stimulating and is worth reading on technology and culture.

The Immanent Frame: A scholarly site devoted to the sociology of religion and the public sphere.

The Chronicle of Higher Education: News about higher education with articles and essays from academics in a wide array of fields and disciplines.

Cyborgology: Site created by sociologists exploring the intersections of digital media and material culture. Frequently thought provoking.

The New Atlantis: Journal exploring technology and society, often, but not exclusively, from ethical and philosophical perspectives.

Also, note that Alan Jacobs is no longer posting on Text Patterns, but I’ll leave the link up there for now since one can still peruse the archive.

The “About This Blog” page has been updated as well.

Finally, feel free to leave feedback on the new look. It’s growing on me, but not set in stone yet.

My Year, More or Less, in Blogging

It’s not precisely one year on two counts.  To begin with, The Frailest Thing existed in its first iteration as early as September 2009.  I was then a true rookie blogger and working on another platform which shall remain nameless (rhymes with Frogger).  That effort never quite got off the ground.  By June 2010, however, I was ready to try again, and that is when the present version was launched.  Secondly, the first post on this site was published on June 2, so we are actually at a year and a few days.  Nonetheless, being a glutton for nostalgia, I’ve decided to take a retrospective glance back at the past year on the blog.  I realize this will likely be of little interest to anyone but myself, but here it is anyway.

First, some highlights:

The Most Viewed Post:   The Cost of Distraction:  What Kurt Vonnegut Knew

A look at the downside of digital distraction through the lens of Harrison Bergeron, this post was featured on Freshly Pressed over a weekend last August and garnered  not only the most hits on record, but also the most comments.

Runner Up:  Is Sport a Religion?  My first post to be featured on Freshly Pressed was inspired by the World Cup.  At the time, still relatively new to WordPress, I was unaware of the Freshly Pressed feature.  It was a fun surprise.

The Most Viewed Post (Without the Help of Freshly Pressed):  Gods of Love and War

A reflection on technology through the myth of Hephaestus, the lame Greek god of metallurgy.  You’d be surprised how many people search for Hephaestus.

Runner Up: Life Amid the Ruins.  A lot of people search for Vanitas Art as well.

The Most Thoughtful Comments: PerpetuallyFrank

Not that all who comment are not always thoughtful (clearing throat), but I must express my appreciation for the frequent and engaging comments provided by PerpetuallyFrank.  Cheers!

Thanks as well, of course, to all who comment including to those friends who I know will at least read out of some sense of fraternal obligation, but have also generously plugged this blog (Messrs. Ridenhour, Fridsma, Greenwald, and Garcia, for example, among others).

The Most Intriguing Comment Thread: Agitate For Beauty

The aforementioned PerpetuallyFrank and my colleague Chris Friend engaged in a very intriguing exchange on the subject of telepathy.  Go read it for yourself.

The Best Compliment:  Tom Fox

“I have to tell you, Michael, you are one of the best writers I’ve never heard of before. Please take it as a compliment.”  I did. On When Words and Action Part Company.

The Links I’ve Appreciated:  Tie

Thanks to Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front for mentioning me in the same breath as Peggy Noonan and to McLuhan Galaxy for re-posting McLuhan, Chesterton, and the Pursuit of Joy.

In fact, many thanks to all of you who have seen fit to link back here and list The Frailest Thing on your blog rolls.

The Most Underrated Post (By Which I Mean the Post I Rather Liked That Got Relatively Little Traffic):  Tie

Reinvigorating Friendship

Shared Sensibilities

That Was Teaching

It’s not too late, they’re out there, just waiting to be read.

The Most Frequent Search Term Leading Here: “Don Draper” and some variation on Martha Nussbaum

The former presumably leading to Don Draper on Prozac and the latter to The Ends of Learning

The Oddest Search Term Leading Here:  Unmentionable (at least on a classy blog such as this!)

I guess that’s what happens when you have a post titled Gods of Love and War in which you refer to the sordid sex lives of the Greek gods.

Moving on, it is always a bit of a surprise when the author of some piece I’ve blogged about drops a comment.  This has happened on a few occasions, and has usually been positive.  So my thanks to following for dropping in.

Linda Stone and Adam Thierer on Technology Sabbaths and Other Strategies for the Digitized World

Mark D. Bowles on Warning:  A Liberal Education Leads to Independent Thinking

Steve Myers on Finding Digital White Space in a World with 50 Billion Connected Devices

Arikia Millikan on “The Storm is What We Call Progress”

Tom Scocca on Obama Talks with a Computer

Elizabeth Drescher  on Multitasking Monks

And finally, some thoughts.

Some one must have come up with a law of writing whereby the ease of composition varies inversely to the obscurity of the audience.  If not, there it is.  Writing a letter (I know, who am I kidding, just fill in whatever — email, text, etc.) to someone you know:  generally easy.  Writing a blog post to whoever happens to read it:  less so.  It probably doesn’t help matters that I tend to be introspective, perhaps to a fault (case in point).

Writing in a more public venue, however, has forced me to be a little more rigorous with the writing and thinking.  I realize that this is still a rather informal space, but someone may read what I am writing and that generates a sense of responsibility to the reader.  If someone is going to invest a few minutes to read a post (as you are presumably doing right now) I owe it to them to avoid careless or confusing writing.  And besides, on a more self-interested note, no one wants to come off as an idiot when they write something others will read.

As far as the content, the first two or three months featured a wider variety of topics than what I end up posting these days.  Not surprisingly my own context ends up guiding a good deal of the writing process.  I am a  graduate student and so there is a certain compulsion toward writing about what I am reading which tends to revolve around technology, writing and reading, and, lately, memory.  Perhaps I’ll try to expand the scope a bit moving forward.  I’m torn between finding a niche and falling into a rut.  Hopefully, there’s a nice middle ground between the two.

I have also been a teacher for over ten years, s0 on here I hope to make much of what I read in an academic context a little more accessible, which is not to say that I aim to dumb it down.  Ideally, I imagine that there is this broad and generous space between the arcane and the simplistic.  That’s the target area I’m aiming for.

Feel free, of course, to let me know how well I’m managing that!

Cheers, and thanks for reading.  I think I’ll give this a go for another year.