Image: Mutable Matter as part of Guerrilla Science at Secret Garden Party music festival 2008
Thanks to Patricia Noxolo and Gail Davies for prompting this post. I keep getting asked why I blog and how I find the time. A few years ago, I tried to answer these questions on the ‘Critical Geographers’ mailing list, and the following is an edited/expanded version of this, as the blog has considerably changed over the last few years.
I started Mutable Matter in 2007 as an experimental part of my Open University PhD project on public engagement with nanotechnology. Initially, I was discouraged from starting an academic blog, as it was seen as a distraction from my PhD, but later, the reactions I received from my readers led to a change in perception. Eventually, the blog even became a model for public engagement activities. Originally, Mutable Matter was intended as a feedback forum for Open University undergraduates whom I wanted to involve in the study. While the blog ended up functioning less as a feedback device, it helped me explore (to some degree at least) who responded to my topic and posts, and what kind of information the site visitors were after. As a blog administrator, I could see what kind of word combinations people enter into a search engine to get to a specific post, as well as the links they click on while reading a post. Over time, the blog evolved into more of a research diary on materialism in general – a place for me to process and share information about events and other things that I attended or came across. Today, I tend to cover subjects where I feel that I can contribute a different point of view, often by bringing works or topics into dialogue with one another.
In general, I enjoy the spontaneity of blogging – you can quickly respond to an urgent topic, even if it is just urgent for yourself. I find this spontaneity psychologically beneficial when I am involved in something seemingly endless: working on a difficult piece of writing, preparing grants or waiting for a peer-review outcome. In such instances, I need a moment of ‘instant satisfaction’ in-between to keep going. I used to set myself a two-hour time limit for a post, but nowadays, I’m giving myself the licence to take longer, particularly if the post promises to help me with a thought problem. On the other hand, I am still concerned not to overwork a post. I still blog when I want to make contact with others on a particular subject, and offering ‘rough work’ can help others to find holes or hooks that they can attach to. Further, the blog helped me to experiment with writing and curating – you can see that older posts are comparatively short and clumsy. I was used to writing academic essays and running a satire zine, but not an academic ‘zine’. As a consequence, earlier posts were still, often unhelpfully, inflected with satire. I did learn a lot from these embarrassing early stages, however. For instance, I noticed how even slight changes in writing style attract very different reactions and audiences, especially when it comes to controversial topics.
Many bloggers also write to change perceptions. A good example is the ironically titled ‘Africa is a country‘ blog or, sadly, the many bloggers that have been arrested for their activities. While I am aware that my own blog has a rather limited, self-selected audience, and that I am, as they say, probably ‘preaching to the converted’, I am also trying to contribute to change. As I mentioned before on this blog, a post or statement can add to the formation of a ‘critical mass’ (in both senses of the word). There is also the question of where content travels. Academics can be quite paranoid about where their content may end up. Despite my obvious desire to control my content, I rather enjoy this part, and am always hoping for unexpected connections. So far, I have had quite a few interesting surprises in terms of correspondence and referencing. Blog content has appeared on in teaching syllabi, science communication sites, exhibition catalogues, academic articles, public lectures, calls for papers and Facebook debates (where I was suddenly copied into on-going discussions). As part of this ‘travelling’, I have also occasionally received information about related projects or invitations to visit or to give a talk. In all of these ways, the blog has made some minute contributions to debates or ‘shaping knowledge’.
Image: Simone Weil by Annerose Schulze
The latter is also increasingly important for a new dimension of blogging for me. Over time, blogging has more and more turned into a form of personal protest, during a time where every idea needs to be quantified (apart from the really significant ones, ironically). There are things that I just want to write for other people or for myself – I don’t want to have to think about them in such instrumental ways. For me, the current quantification of research works fatally against intellectual projects, risk and community. Being a public intellectual – sharing, exchanging and debating knowledge – is made almost impossible by the mechanisms of the ‘academic factory’. Here, blogs can provide a space both for breathing, sharing and for contestation. For example, I deliberately did not publish my Afrofuturism blog post as an article – on the one hand, because I did not want to contribute to the appropriation of the movement by white academics, on the other, because I relate to Afrofuturism primarily as a musician, and it is kind of sacred to me in that sense. In fact, the politics of this blog post ended up being discussed in social media, and the debate (whose 58 comments printed out to 18 A4 pages) affirmed my impulse.
I made a similar decision a poem based on Simone Weil’s work that I published on this blog, since Weil stands for not using knowledge to achieve professional advancement. In fact, her work raises questions about the tensions around political academic publishing. One the one hand, I want to write about intellectuals such as Simone Weil for political reasons (e.g. expand the current academic canon on materialism, to advance women theorists or to criticise current academic structures), on the other hand, I do enter into a contract that affirms intellectually/socially/culturally destructive practices. Against this background, I do hope that blogging continues to be a source of (fighting for) academic freedom and debate, and hopefully one where the full implications of ‘the medium is the message‘ are seriously being reconsidered.