“Blessay”? “Translations of Expertise”? “Blogging For Intent” You Be The Judge

The problem with stalling around waiting for an editor to come back with comments so I can revise the manuscript so we can push forward to publication is that my brain has time on its hands. (CAN a brain have hands?) Which means I’m thinking about not just this and that, but the other, too.

To whit: I read an essay the other day written by Dan Cohen, a historian whose area of expertise is the “digital humanties.” (No, I’m not gonna  explain. Ask ten people, and you’ll get ten different explanations of what that is and does. Google it. Or Bing it. Or whatever.)

Cohen, suggested using the term “blessay” to identify a particular form of “new” writing: The blog essay that is relatively short, and both expertise- and idea-driven. An essay that’s not just a short “here’s what I had for dinner” blog entry, but also not a five- to thirty-thousand word essay weighted with footnotes and written for a peer-reviewed or for a traditional publication (like The New Yorker). An essay written for “an intelligent general audience.” (Nope. Can’t explain that either.)

His essay prompted a Twitter-based debate and quite a few comments at Cohen’s blog. I missed the debate (and only came across the essay after the fact on my Google reader feed) so I had to do some backtracking to find said Twitter-debate.

What I found intriguing, however, was that the discussants quickly shifted from the merits of Cohen’s term of choice to a discussion of the audience for “blessays.”  For whom are such blessays intended? (Other than “an intelligent general audience”?

One Tweeterer (I’m waiting for someone to tell me that’s the wrong term to use) suggested that the audience is

 para-academic, post-collegiate white-collar workers and artists, with occasional breakthroughs either all the way to a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.”

To which I mentally replied: Ugh.

(I hasten to add that the people who were responding via Twitter to Dan’s essay were all people I “follow.” They’re all WAY smarter than I am, and way more educated than I am [not, frankly, that either of those states is hard to achieve].)

Others chimed in to say that such essays were similar to the work created by “public intellectuals” back when there were still such things (there are still), back, say, in the mid-20th century. And one person wondered:

 Do academics who blogs get readers from outside? (not so much big but wide audience)

To which I thought “Hmmmm.”

So where am I going with this? (Bear with me; I’m thinking on the fly.)

A large chunk of what appears on THIS on this “blog” are precisely the kind of essays that Cohen suggests naming “blessays”: I use my particular form of expertise (I’m a historian) to comment on what teachers back in the old day called “current events”: I discuss Events of the Day by framing them in a larger historical context. (Sometimes I also describe/talk about my work as I do it, to give readers a look behind the scenes of how historians “do history.”)

I write “blessays” in part because doing so helps me think about my own work, but also because I’m aware that, in general, Americans don’t much care for history, and who can blame them? (Read: the teaching of history, like the teaching of most subjects, is done badly if at all.) So my general goal in blogging is to “do” history in real time, if you will.

Who is my audience? Anyone who comes strolling past. I don’t care if the reader is “intelligent,” a “para-academic,” an “artist,” or works in a “white-collar” job. I don’t care if the reader collects garbage, collects debts, or collects comic books. I don’t care if the reader is from the “outside” world, wherever that may be, or the inside one.

All I care about is communicating the complexity of the human experience to ordinary folks like myself. That means I intentionally structure my blessays to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

After all, the truly amazing and wonderful aspect of the web (and of software/platforms that have made “blogging” so simple and accessible) is that our potential audience is everyone, and so we need not limit our content for a specific audience.

Can we (self) impose limits to our intended audience? Aim the content for a specific slice of possible readership (eg, “para-academics,” and no, I don’t know what that is or means. I’ll look it up when I’m finished.) Of course!

But slapping a label on the scholar-who-uses-blogging-as-a-way-to-communicate-with-a-general-audience strikes me as defeating the purpose of the scholar-driven blog. If we wanted to aim at “intellectuals,” middle brow or otherwise, well, hell, we can all just write conventionally (on paper) and send said writing off to someplace like The Atlantic or The New Yorker and hope the editors there will take the piece.

So:  it’s the big, ‘ol high-middle-low brow audience for me and my decidedly low-brow form of scholarship. But if no one minds, I think I’ll just stick with “blogging.”

Mapping Travel in the Rome Empire

This is so cool I can hardly stand it. Be still my historian’s heart.

Yes, you do need to read the bit of instruction. Yes, the tutorial is helpful. Still, this digital map of the Roman Empire and the reality of travel in it is amazing. Do we live in a great age or what??

Making Meat, the Writer’s Pitfall, and Online Interaction With Readers

Finally, a good example of the way website/online interaction can inform a writer’s work! (*1)

A couple of days ago, I commented on a New York Times op-ed piece about land use and meat supply. You can read my comment here, but what’s relevant is the point I made about farm land: Farmers compete with city folks for land. What’s farmland now may, in ten years, contain houses or office buildings, a shift in land use typically identified as “urban sprawl.”

A person identifying herself as Louisa commented on that blog entry. Here is her comment:

Not quite…it’s not land vs. urban spaces, which are actually pretty efficient, but land vs. SUBurban spaces, with all the sprawl that entails. I live in a small town surrounded by farmland. Every year, more farmland is bought up by developers to turn into another grossly oversized subdivision filled with 4,000 sq ft houses- whose owners then turn around and lobby for nuisance laws that are aimed at, among other things, farm smells and sounds. After moving out into the country because it’s “so picturesque.” So yes, we do need to have the conversation about what kind of agricultural system we want. But we also need to have a conversation about what kind of living space we want, and whether we want to do more to protect farmland from becoming suburban sprawl.

I am grateful that Louisa took the time to read and comment (more grateful than she probably knows!), but as important, her comment reminded me that I need to beware of the writer’s pitfall: Don’t assume readers know what you mean. I’ve spent so many years working on the meat book that I tend to write/think in shorthand and make assumptions about what readers know and don’t know. In this case, I should have been more clear about the relationship between farming methods and urban societies.

First to her comment: She’s correct: The more houses, office buildings, and gas stations we build, the more likely we are to use what was once farmland. As I type this, I’m sitting in a house that is sitting on land that was part of a farm just twenty years ago. So, yes, I’m aware of the “urban sprawl” part of the equation. (And, because I live in Iowa, I’m also aware that, as Louisa points out, when people move to houses like mine, they often complain about rural smells and sounds.) (*2)

But I failed to make a more subtle distinction. Americans have chosen to live “in town” rather than “in the country.” Nearly 80% of us live in “municipalities” of one kind or another. Only two percent of us work as “farmers.” So that two percent has to figure out how to make food as efficiently as possible. If we shut down all the Ames, Iowas, razed the “sprawl,” and forced everyone to move to, say, Manhattan or Brooklyn, we’d still have the same equation: Nearly all of us would rely on a tiny minority to make our food.

But even if the agricultural two percent suddenly had access to farmland once devoted to houses and office buildings, it’s unlikely they would decide to send their cattle, hogs, and chickens out into the “pasture” to range freely.

Why? Because those are labor-intensive forms of agricultural production, and we’d still have just 2% of the population making the food. That’s a primary reason that farmers back in the 1950s embraced confinement as a way to raise livestock: they faced a serious labor shortage. They didn’t have enough “hands” to raise livestock the “old-fashioned” way. If they wanted to keep farming, they had to figure out how to do it without additional labor.

Why was there a labor shortage? Because after World War II, farmers’ sons and daughters decided they wanted to live in town, not on the farm. So — as those sons and daughters left the farms, they became part of the “urban majority” who relied on farmers to produce food for them. But those farmers, in turn, were left short-handed and in need of ways to make their operations more efficient. (*3)

So when I write about the connection between life in an “urban” society and systems of farming, I need to be more clear about what I mean. City folks are not farmers. They rely on others to grow food for them. In an urban society like ours, most people have CHOSEN not to be food producers. The people who do produce the food are then faced with a quandary: How to make enough food for everyone?

It’s perhaps worth repeating the point I made in that blog entry: When a people choose to live in an urban society rather than an agrarian one, they also enjoy the benefit (luxury) of time for intellectual work. The farming two percent make it possible for the rest of us to sit around and invent iPads and smart phones, blog, write critiques of the food system, or whatever. We can engage in “other” work because we don’t spend time growing or preserving food.

Again, the physical form of the urban setting is irrelevant. Sure, if we all moved to Manhattan, we’d free up land for farming. But it’s unlikely we’d have more FARMERS. We’d still have 98% of the population living in an urban setting, and two percent making the food.

So. Memo to self: in the manuscript of what is becoming a “real” book, I need to be wary of skipping A so I can get to B.

Again, many thanks to Louisa for her help.
*1: We writers hear this all the time: We can engage with readers! (Yes, of course.) We can use feedback from readers to shape our work! Umm. Okay? Maybe? Not sure. And I’ve been one of the doubters. But now I “get” how interaction can, in fact, shape my work.

*2: Indeed, that conflict was one of the first ideas that came to me when I decided to write this book. See this blog entry I wrote for Powell’s Books six years ago.

*3: Another point is worth mentioning: Even those “young” people who chose to stay on the farm were no longer willing to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They were even more willing than their fathers and mothers to embrace labor-saving tools and systems of production, including livestock confinement.

James McWilliams, Meat, History, the “Contrarian” View, and Land Supply

[UPDATE: Joel Salatin responded to McWilliams’ essay with this post. It appeared first on Salatin’s Facebook page, and then at Grist.]

(How’s THAT for a kitchen sink title?)

I’m a fan of James McWilliams, a historian whose last book was about our contemporary food system, but who has also written a brilliant book about the history of food in “early” America (that’s the fancy term for the colonial era). He also writes op-ed pieces about contemporary food politics and system, and he’s almost always on the “wrong” side — so he’s often referred to as a contrarian. (*1)

In any case, here he is in today’s New York Times, pointing out that the more “natural” system of making meat isn’t necessarily better than the existing “factory” system. In particular, he points out that it requires more land.

 If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

He’s right, of course. And that’s one of the aspects of our food system that critics rarely, perhaps never, mention: Where are the acres to raise all that livestock going to come from?

As I point out in my forthcoming book, one reason that the “factory” system of livestock production took hold, especially in the 1950s, was because of rising demand for what had been agricultural land. And, too, the demand for meat, especially beef, proved more than the existing western range could handle. (Commercial feedlots were the solution to both problems.)

Put another way: We Americans wanted cities more than we wanted “natural” farms. As a result, farmers could no longer enjoy the luxury of grazing stock on very expensive land. They had to farm “intensively” rather than “extensively.”

That’s an important point. And as I’m fond of pointing out, one reason that we have so many critics tapping away on their keyboards today is because the vast majority of us (nearly 80 percent) live in cities. And one fact about city folks so obvious that it’s easy to overlook is this: They’re city folks, not farmers. They rely on others (farmers) to produce  food. Because we city people aren’t out toiling in the fields, we enjoy the luxury of time — time to think, to criticize, to write.

So. Land for urban places? Or land for happy cattle and pigs? We can’t “fix” the food system until we decide which is more important.

Which is one reason that I say: the only realistic way to solve the “problem” of the current food system is by re-thinking how, when, and why we eat meat.

And, yes, ohmygod, but I’ve missed blogging……………… SO happy to have some time to indulge!


*1: A beautiful example of what Orwell had in mind about language and politics: when McWilliams is defined as a contrarian, the implication, of course, is that there’s a received, “correct” view — in this case that the existing “food system” is evil and that we should return to a “natural” system of making food. (*2)

*2: Which itself implies that somehow there used to be a more “natural” way of making food. Oh, if only people knew….