Wouldn’t it be nice…

…if the world of blogging about software had by now developed some kind of a tradition of critical analysis?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee writes a careful and thoughtful review of Cornel West’s new book. It performs the delicate feat of being at once both generous to its subject and devastating in its analysis:

Legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson acquired his haunting style by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. West, as a “bluesman of the life of the mind,” has clearly also been to the crossroads. The devil gave him a team of publicists. I don’t think this was a good bargain on West’s part. It left him unable to recognize that self-respect is often the enemy of self-esteem.

Although his prose style is impeccable, what I like even more about McLemee’s piece is the way in which he expresses hope that West might return to fulfilling his early promise. (I suspect that this expression of hope is mainly a form of rhetorical charity, but it’s stylish nonetheless.) This led me to wondering whether it’s even achievable to foster a similar style among people who write about code.

I suspect that many of the awful writing habits of software bloggers come from the fact that they are sometimes actually trying to do things: I tried to use some software; it did something dumb (or nothing at all); I am frustrated; I am going to get splenetic, possibly on a subject where I have no idea what I’m talking about. You can’t take an issue of Social Text out of the university library and do something fun with it after hours (hell, it takes a strong stomach to have fun with critical theory inside the library), so that particular variety of resentment born of ill experience doesn’t arise.

Maybe I’ll actually write up some thoughts on Go at some point, and see if I can live up to my admittedly forlorn hopes.

Posted in reading, software
6 comments on “Wouldn’t it be nice…
  1. sclv says:

    Personally I’ve always found McLemee to be a gossip columnist for the tweed jacket set, and while he cites West’s earlier work he doesn’t seem to show any engagement with it. That said, its still preferable to the blog culture you’re discussing. Generosity in criticism (genuine, not McLemee’s which I take to be all flourish — he’s got miles of style because that’s what he’s selling) is sort of hard to come by when lots of discussion is born in anger.

    For people that don’t consider themselves first and foremost, if at all, writers, angry and sensationalist styles are some of the easiest poses to adopt. Which maybe explains a little as well.

  2. Mitch says:

    LOL at the implied comparison between West and Go. “You used to be so cool, man…”

    “blogging software” hung me up for a moment, thinking that you meant things like wordpress. “software blogging” would have been easier to read, I think.

  3. My thanks to Bryan for this post. The expression of hope that West will move on to do better work is sincere.

    The piece did not engage with West’s early work because it was not *about* West’s early work. I do intend (and in fact need) to write about the problems with his approach to Marxism, given that West’s blindspot regarding C.L.R. James is significant. But that would probably be in a conference presentation or a paper, not my column.

    The reference to gossip is amusing, since I don’t know any and so can’t write about it. The remark about my “miles of style” is an unwitting compliment from someone whose finest attribute is, obviously, courage.

  4. sclv says:

    Scott: surprised to see you stop by, but I do find this shock, shock at the term gossip somewhat a put-on from someone whose corpus of work contains, among other choice morsels, “Zizek Watch”.

    I’ll just leave it at that, and apologize to bos for turning a post on generosity of criticism into something of a snark-fest.

  5. solrize says:

    No idea about Cornel West but the topic of Go seems pretty much mined out. There was a pretty good piece comparing it to (spoiler) algol-68:

    http://www.cowlark.com/2009-11-15-go/

    Not too terribly much more needs to be added.

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