A belated farewell to Antike und Abendland, Uwe Walter’s blog at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung online, which posted its last entry back at the end of November. I can’t find any mention of this elsewhere on the FAZ site (indeed, it’s still listed as one of their regular blogs), and Herr Walter has presumably been told by the management to say nothing more than that the blog is coming (abruptly) to an end – or perhaps hasn’t been offered any explanation either – so we’re left to speculate on how far this is just another example of the constant drive in the popular media for novelty in search of more hits, how far it’s a cost-saving measure, and how far it represents a rejection of the founding idea of the blog, that the ancient world can still speak to the modern. Or some combination of the three.
Disclosure of personal interest: I’ve known Uwe for a couple of years, I’m going to Bielefeld next year for a month or so at his invitation, and he was once kind enough to mention this blog in one of his postings. I can only imagine how much of a loss it must be, after nearly four years (244 entries in the archive, posted more or less weekly), no longer to have such an outlet – but also a relief, perhaps, given how much work it must have involved. If you’ve never visited the blog, it’s worth doing so while it’s still easy to find the links, to admire and marvel: these are not the kinds of posts familiar from mainstream English-language blogs (chatty personal reflections on academic life, or passing ideas tossed out like cheap fireworks), but serious academic discussions, often building on a review of a book or mention of a conference to consider the broad contemporary implications of the ideas therein. Most impressive and informative for me have been the accounts of German classicists and ancient historians of older generations, returning time and again to the old problem of the place and influence of the classics in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany, but there have been illuminating discussions of what the ancient world might tell us on everything from US politics to recent debates in Germany about circumcision.
It’s not that the latter topics, at least, receive no attention in English-language blogs, but that they don’t receive this kind of attention: detailed and scholarly essays of 500-1000 words, written with wonderful clarity but making no concessions to a ‘general’ audience in terms of knowledge assumed or the complexity of the ideas. Insofar as a media persona has been constructed and presented through the blog, it is that of a traditional university professor, scholarly and erudite on a remarkable range of topics but lacking any evidence of a personal life or sense of humour – not because the author does not possess such things, but because they would be an irrelevant distraction from the subject at a hand. To be honest, I find it hard to imagine that such a blog would ever have got off the ground in the UK, where even serious newspaper columnists, let alone bloggers, are expected to develop a recognisable ‘personality’ to ‘sell’ their ideas; and even if it did, the idea that it could then have lasted nearly four years seems even more far-fetched.
It’s tempting, and probably not wholly inaccurate, to think of the Aufstieg und Niedergang of A&A as telling us something significant about German culture: in positive terms, its seriousness, its willingness to engage properly with big ideas, and its habit of taking its audience seriously and treating it with respect, whereas we British bloggers, even if respectable academics, have to avoid anything that might make us seem remotely elitist or intellectual (the pervasive trope of self-deprecation, the desperate references to contemporary pop culture…). One might equally argue that the Germans, or at any rate the FAZ, had completely failed to grasp the conventions of the genre of the blog, or its manifest advantages: blogs are great precisely because they’re not properly worked-through academic articles, they can be spontaneous responses to whatever’s going on, and because they allow the author to admit to having a personality rather than rigorously suppressing this beneath the conventions of academic prose and propriety. The demise of Antike und Abendland may then be seen as a belated recognition that this kind of serious, scholarly blog is not really suited to bringing in the kinds of mass audience that media groups, even German media groups, are looking for.
But of course that doesn’t mean that a serious blog can never reach a substantial audience, simply that it will not reach the sort of audience that persuades a newspaper group to pay the author to produce it. That leaves the question of whether the author would happily turn out a 500+ word essay every week if not being paid for it – but the same could be said of A Don’s Life. The majority of blogs, even academic blogs, are personal enterprises, with their authors willing to devote the time to writing entries for non-pecuniary motives of some sort – and for many of us in the UK, I suspect, it is above all the opportunity to play around with ideas and respond quickly to whatever catches our interest, temporarily free from the looming presence of the REF and its minions that otherwise constantly shadows our research activities. There is also the opportunity to advertise forthcoming conferences and other events to keep classics on the map, to publicise one’s ‘proper’ publications and so forth, but above all we do this because it’s fun and informal, and that then conditions what we write and how we write it.
Is that all there is, and all blogs are for? In the world of classics and ancient history, it does rather feel like that; granted, I haven’t devoted much time to looking, but I don’t visit Mary’s blog, or Edith’s, or Constantina’s or the Rogue Classicist’s, in the expectation of heavyweight discussion of current academic debates – their personal insights on certain matters, yes, but that’s not the same thing, and they aren’t discussed in the same way by other visitors to the sites. Essentially, there seems to be little overlap between the world of academic debate on the ancient world and the world of classical blogs, beyond the identity of some of the authors (History of the Ancient World offers links to academic articles, but since it doesn’t allow any comments or discussion it’s irrelevant, and rather puzzling). Serious debate about ancient history and classics appears – I’m very happy to be corrected on this – to take place off-line, in the traditional fora of conferences and scholarly publications.
It’s not just the demise of A&A that leads me to wonder about the lack of weight and seriousness in the remaining classics-related blogs with which I’m familiar, it’s also the contrast with the political blogs like Crooked Timber, The Monkey Cage and Jacobin that I visit a great deal more regularly, in part because the quality of debate is so high – not just the academics who are responsible for many of the posts, but the commentators, who include many well-informed non-academics. Their world is not by any means uniformly serious and humourless, but it is consistently intelligent and engaged with ideas, assuming that the audience will make the effort to engage with complexity and ambiguity. Many of the posts offer accounts of research-in-progress or responses to just-published books and articles; regular reading gives me at least some sense of what’s going on in the field, in an accessible form, the range of positions around any given issue, and the broader implications of the ideas for contemporary life – whereas to an alarming degree classics blogs seem to be focused on identifying examples of classical things and references in the mass media, as if to reassure us that we’re still vaguely relevant.
In part, this is an inevitable result of the separate histories of our disciplines, so that political studies, economics and the other social sciences can feel reasonably confident of their continued significance whereas we’re constantly defensive and insecure. But it’s also a reflection of different ideas of what a blog can do and how it could relate to ‘normal’ academic practice. For us, blogs remain a marginal activity pursued by a few enthusiasts, associated with popularisation and ‘impact'; in the eyes of many of our colleagues, I suspect, an irrelevant or even dangerous distraction from proper work (you know, this blog was originally intended to be built around contributions from the whole range of academics and postgrads in Bristol, rather than just me…). For many of these politics and economics people, on the other hand, blogs are an ideal vehicle for international discussion and co-operation, for road-testing ideas, for keeping up with the latest ideas; the internet is one of the key places where the debate is being conducted. That wasn’t, it must be admitted, true of Antike und Abendland (perhaps in part, in my view, because the style of the posts tended sometimes to close things down rather than open up debate) – but perhaps it could have been, if we’d recognised the opportunity for some serious debate while we still had it