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Considering Medieval Blogs

8 Mar

The essay “Blogging the Middle ages” by GWU professor Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (available in the anthology Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog) is very much exemplary of a tendency in the Digital Humanities to consider digital technology as a personal and social phenomenon.  The cultural and intellectual dialogues enabled by blogging are given thorough consideration in Cohen’s essay, with the ‘Medieval Blogosphere”- that is, the network of Humanities scholars who specialize in the literature and culture of the Middle Ages- being the primary focus.  The main draw that Blogs possess for Cohen, and a great many others, is their essentially egalitarian nature.  They enable anyone to join an intellectual discussion with minimal formality.  As Cohen wrote himself, “”Like many Internet-inspired phenomena, blogs lack formality and rigidity, especially when compared to conventional print.  Much of what is disseminated through the medium is serious, sober, professional, and worth preserving.  Much is also light-hearted, whimsical, personal, and ephemeral.”  At their best, blogs would seem to serve as a sort of testing ground, roughly analogous to the conversational brainstorming sessions academic colleagues frequently have that serve as the genesis to bigger scholarly projects.  The advantage of the blog, of course, is a significantly expanded, even ‘global’ audience.  Scholarly projects and other intellectual endeavors can proceed at an accelerated pace in the blogosphere, and possibly develop on a larger scale thanks to the ease with which multiple parties can participate in one discourse.  Cohen is quite sensitive to all of the new avenues opened up by blogs, but is careful not to overstate their significance.  He is quite insightful on the question of supposed ‘information overload’, something commonly thought to be an innovation of the digital age, or at least the age of modern media generally.  Quoting scholar Eileen Joy, he reveals ‘there has always been information overload.’  Even biographers in the 17th century had to grapple with often overwhelming mountains of text and carefully pick and choose what was most important for their biographical effort.  What the internet introduced was an accelerated pace and greater accessibility for more people.  Back in the day it would seem that information overload was a privilege of the elite.  Now everyone seems to have it.  

The personal, communal pleasures of blogging are also given a great deal of consideration in Cohen’s essay.  In the real world, maintaining connections in a community of scholars can be a difficult task, but the blogosphere streamlines the process and enables contact across great distances and quickly.  The informal nature of blogging also allows personal interjections that make the community more hospitable, and more accommodating of a wider variety of needs, both emotional and intellectual.  Even with all this, Cohen resists the urge to wax romantic- he does not seem to believe that technological development will ever bring about utopia, either in academia or anywhere else.  He remarks, “The future of scholarly communication will likely mean that the technologies I have been using (traditional print books, blogs, Twitter, FB) will be superseded.  The future will arrive, and may well leave me behind, just like those for whom the be-all and end-all of scholarship was e-texts, CD’s, or microfiche.”

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