Monday, December 30, 2013

That Blog of Geoffrey Chaucer

  My medievalist husband presented me for Christmas with a copy of the book of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog by Brantley L. Bryant (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), now revealed to the world as LeVostreGC himself. The spouse knew I was a great fan of the blog because I used to annoy the hell out of him by reading out all the best bits. He doesn't want to read it now because he says the rest won't be as funny, except for "Margery Kempe at the MLA", which he will read because he is rather fond of old Margery. He thinks the world has given her a tough time. Hmmm.
  Somewhere in this process is embedded some profound concept about the whole changing nature of the written word, from manuscript, through printing to the continually evolving landscape of electronic publication; multimedia, e-books, websites, blogs, Facebook, Tumblr et al and Twitter. I guess we're not finished yet. What is going to be the Next Big Thing for disseminating our words?
  I was a bit disappointed in the book at first because it has some introductory material that is actually serious. The blog itself is very erudite and intellectual, but definitely not serious. But while the reader is cackling away at some bit of nonsense, they can feel they are one-upping the ignorant world with knowledge of some esoteric reference. Classic academic humour.
  The comments to each blog piece are not included. Perhaps there are legal issues relating to copyright here, I don't know, but the comments made the blog a collaborative experience, while reducing it to the work of a single author makes it an authoritative work, as are all printed books (even if they're not). Then (shock, horror) the  author tells us he has edited the entries to remove errors and misfired jokes. So the spontaneity and muddlement of whacking something out on the keyboard and, with devil-may-care enthusiasm, thrusting on to the world with a click of the "publish" button, has been overridden by the editorial process as applied to printed works through the ages.
  And the author is outed. No longer can we wonder "Who the hell is this Geoffrey Chaucer bloke?" as we giggle over his cockeyed view of the world. The author himself asserts that this is partly due to "the expectations of print publication", so the reins of past technology are still attached to the bridle. Authority, editorial correctness and identity, as opposed to spontaneity, collaboration and deliberate anonymity. Bugger. And I was hoping to publish my outrageous novel about the workings of a charity book warehouse under the nom de plume Hipster Bookfairy. But hang on, authors of the past have had nom de plumes (noms de plume, noms de plumes, whatever). What is the rule? Does it have to be a proper nom, but not a nom that already belongs to somebody else particularly if they are dead, famous, or both? It does rather spoil the fantasy of the joke.
  Finally, it naturally has an end. There are postings on the blog that postdate the publication of the book, and while they may be getting sparser in quantity as the author has acquired a career and a life, they are just as good a read. And there is always the hope that there is another beauty still in the offing. Still, it is there in that ready reference, flip-the-pages form and I can have a giggle and hoot at Margery, or King Richard II's rider, or the purported lascivious doings at Kalamazoo, whenever the urge strikes. And if the entire internet suddenly goes foofoo for unexpected reasons, there will still be a reminder of what was in one little corner of it.
  Returning to some of the more serious discussion, Chapter 4 of the book is an article by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen entitled "Blogging the Middle Ages", which briefly discusses the history of blogs and other internet media in medieval studies. He notes that pioneers of the internet in medieval studies did not receive the same kind of recognition for their work as those who put printed ink on paper, and many fine pioneering medieval websites have either languished or disappeared as their authors have moved to other positions or projects.
  Been there, done that. When the medievalist spouse and myself were working on multimedia projects in the mid 1990s, the august  university we were working from was only interested in the production of educational product that could be sold to make money for the university. Never mind about continuity, development, posterity or the minor detail that they weren't actually paying me to work on the project. That is why everything out there with my name on it flies proudly with the banner "independent scholar". An awful lot of effort and brainpower was wasted in those early days on the internet because senior academics spent their time trying to pretend it wasn't happening while the pioneers made the history books (or blogs?) but not the professorships.
  The succession of internet technologies that has occurred does not need to obliterate previous work, as each type of technology serves a different purpose. Ye olde webbsitte is still the best place to build a complex and structured teaching environment. A blog makes a great journal for announcement or opinionated ranting (didja notice?), but its archiving features mean it can have relevance over an extended period. I am amazed from my blog stats that people keep reading old blog posts. Facebook is great for building networks of the like minded, and Twitter is fine for catching people's attention and pointing to more wordy publications.
  I am a little intrigued by the compilation sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, which seem to churn the contents of the internet around like a washing machine without necessarily adding much in the way of content, but I guess we will find creative ways of using it in time. After all, people initially used Twitter to announce to the world what they were eating for lunch. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some committed souls out there who are using the above to ensure that stuff released as Creative Commons gets dispersed all around and truly becomes the commons before some bureaucrat changes their mind.
  What we need to do now is convince the dinosaurs that this can be real academic work. And it's got to be OK to have a laugh. Keep on bloggin' LeVostreGC.

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