Howard Becker, Blogging and Phenomenology

There’s a really nice post on Jon Rainford’s blog which talks about Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists and its potential lessons for bloggers:

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says  ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change its shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took, after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

I love the description of a thought that “doesn’t change its shape” once written down. I’ve become aware of myself in the last few months as someone who thinks-through-writing and this is integral to it. Thoughts in my mind feel formless and inchoate until I’ve externalised them in speech or, better yet, writing. When discussing things I find interesting or writing about them, it’s sometimes a surprise to me what comes out – it’s obviously  not something which emerges ex nihilo but until I’ve externalised the thoughts in my head they’re only really potential thoughts. Or something like that… in my more pretentious moments I think that I’d like to write a phenomenology of blogging at some point. I recently encountered a great passage by Nick Crossley talking about the phenomenology of typing and it seems a logical next step to extend this into a phenomenology of writing with a keyboard. In fact the discussion of the physical process of typing seems oddly lopsided without it (not a criticism of him given that this makes perfect sense in the context of the article) – the emphasis in the extract was added by me:

It is not only my own body that I “know” in this way, moreover. I have a pre-reflective sense or grasp on my environment, relative to my body, as is evidenced by my capacity to move around in and utilize that space without first having to think how to do so. Our relation to technological objects, such as word processors, provides an interesting illustration of this. I can type and to that extent “I know” where the various letters are on the keyboard. I do not have to find the letters one by one, as when I first bought the thing. My fingers just move in the direction of the correct keys. Indeed, when I am in full flow, I seem actually to be thinking with my fingers in the respect that I do not know in advance of typing exactly what I will say. It is not just that I do not need to think  about where the keys are, however. The break with reflective thought is more severe than this. I could not give a reflective, discursive account of the keyboard layout. I do not “know” where the keys are in a reflective sense and to make any half decent attempt at guessing I have to imagine I am typing and watch where my fingers head for when I come to the appropriate letter. The type of knowledge I have of the keyboard is a practical, embodied knowledge, quite remote and distinct from discursive knowledge. It is “know-how,” in Gilbert Ryle’s sense, not propositional knowledge-that.

– Nick Crossley, The Phenomenological Habitus

Underlying this interest is my conviction that an understanding of the practice of writing cannot be divorced from an understanding of the tools with which one writes. This is a point well made by Evan Selinger in a short essay on Nietzsche’s adoption of the typewriter later in life:

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler contends that in order to understand how Nietzsche coped with myopia, it is crucial to grasp the import of him by buying a typewriter: a Danish model invented by Hans Rasmus Johann Malling Hanson. Given the lack of philosophical precedent, Kittler characterizes Nietzsche as the “first mechanized philosopher,” and argues that integrating the typewriter into the writing process facilitated several changes to the act of writing itself, profoundly impacting Nietzsche’s thought and style.

Kittler stresses how typewriters alter the physical connection between writer and text.  Unlike the visual attention that writing by hand requires, the typewriter made it possible to create texts by exploiting a blind, tactile power that can harness “a historically new proficiency: écriture automatique.”  Given the report of a Frankfurt eye doctor, which stated that Nietzsche’s “right eye could only perceive mistaken and distorted images,” and Nietzsche’s own claim to find reading and writing painful after twenty minutes, we can appreciate why he would turn to a writing device that could be operated simply by pressing briefly on a key—a key that doesn’t even need to be looked at.  Indeed, the Malling Hanson was specifically designed to “compensate for physical deficiencies” by having the capacity to “be guided solely by one’s sense of touch.”


Kittler cites a poem that Nietzsche wrote about the Malling Hansen in 1882.  Translated, it states:


By comparing “the equipment, the thing, and the agent,” Nietzsche appears to demonstrate his awareness that “authors” do not generate thoughts that transcend their material culture.

The last line seems like something of an overstatement but it nonetheless expresses something quite profound about the role of ‘tools’ in the creative process.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Sociological Craft

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