Blogging and the Republic of Letters

I was interested by this comment by Rhiannon Bury in an interview on Henry Jenkin’s blog

Let me close by saying that Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way I disseminate research on fandom. The norm in academia is to analyze our data behind closed doors and not report on it until we have a finished “product” in the form of a conference paper, a journal article, a book chapter, etc. With the use of blogging and microblogging technologies, I plan to informally report on findings as I work my way through the data in the coming months. I hope this will provide opportunities for dialogue with fans and fan scholars, and in turn provide feedback to inform my analysis.

Christian Callisen and Barbara Adkins have written an interesting paper (published in New Media and Society) arguing that the academic blogosphere is actually a contemporary rendition of the early modern ‘Republic of Letters’.

The Mapping the Republic of Letters project, describes the Republic of Letters as follows:

When early modern scholars (from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment) described the broadest community to which they belonged, they most frequently called this international community of scholars the “Republic of Letters.”

The Republic of Letters was an intellectual network initially based on the writing and exchange of letters that emerged with and thrived on new technologies such as the printing press and organized itself around cultural institutions (e. g. museums, libraries, academies) and research projects that collected, sorted, and dispersed knowledge. A pre-disciplinary community in which most of the modern disciplines developed, it was the ancestor to a wide range of intellectual societies from the seventeenth-century salons and eighteenth-century coffeehouses to the scientific academy or learned society and the modern research university. Forged in the humanist culture of learning that promoted the ancient ideal of the republic as the place for free and continuous exchange of knowledge, the Republic of Letters was simultaneously an imagined community (a scholar’s utopia where differences, in theory, would not matter), an information network, and a dynamic platform from which a wide variety of intellectual projects – many of them with important ramifications for society, politics, and religion – were proposed, vetted, and executed.

I very much like the idea of the academic blogosphere as a continuation of these utopian ideals of intellectual community and the free sharing of ideas in an environment which minimises institutional hierarchy (although one can certainly debate how far this latter ideal can actually ever be realised). It is a way for academics and other intellectuals to sidestep the increasingly regulated and corporatised institutional environment of the university and continue their collaborations, work and outreach to other sectors in the social body.

Incidentally, for an amusing and, alas, all too accurate a take on this issue of academic versus corporate university culture see Joseph Gora and Andrew Whelan’s opinion piece: ‘Invasion of the Aca-zombies’

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