The Virtues of Excrement: Lili Loofbourow on Blogging and the Academic Life

Lili Loofbourow is a seventh-year graduate student who works on early modern constructions of reading as a form of eating—theologically, physiologically, etc. In addition to her research and teaching, Lili writes for a number of blogs, including The Hairpin, The Awl, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Republic, where she contributes TV criticism to the Dear Television series. She also maintains a personal blog called Excremental Virtue.

What follows is an interview with Lili, in which she talks about the relationship between her blogging and her academic pursuits.

Why do you blog? How did you get started?

Oh gosh. I started blogging a few years ago with a friend, Danielle Roderick. It was her idea. When we lived together we developed these patterns of obsessively rewatching and analyzing books and TV—especially when the narrative resisted making its female characters caricatures or even likeable. Danielle introduced me to the BBC’s The Office, and I think we binge-watched it at least 50 times, studying every writerly move, every directorial choice, every actor’s execution. (And camera angles—were those act break shots of the Xerox with the paper coming out supposed to look like an upskirt shot? Were we crazy?) We wondered when, if ever, American audiences would have a Dawn Tinsley or a Diana Trent.

Old Spice Guy and “mascularity”

Over the years we got kind of obsessed with all the Dawns we didn’t get to see. Why is the female spectrum empty in the middle where awkwardness and mixed feelings should be? And what about romantic comedies and the pleasure we guiltily got from them, and can you love something even if it programs you? Remember the Old Spice Guy and how incredibly he crystallized this abstract aggregation of things that added up to “mascularity,” to “the man your man could smell like”? We were trying to figure out the female side of that; what’s femscularity? At what point do these performances become parodies?

The blog started when my marriage ended and Danielle kind of swooped in and rescued me. Working through these narrative gender knots became a joint project, so we started a blog where we wrote letters to each other in the typically bloggy style—meandering, undisciplined, thinking aloud about whatever: sometimes belly-dancing, sometimes politics, sometimes storytelling. We kept stumbling across female characters in old movies and books who had more agency, more narrative importance than they did in the present. It was weird. It started to seem like the closer we’d come to gender equality as a culture, the more regressive popular fiction had become. (None of this is news anymore, but this felt like an isolated conversation back then. Women’s representation in media has gotten much more attention thanks to VIDA and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham, and it’s been an incredible thing to watch.) Writing letters released us from the compunction to definitively pronounce on things we wanted instead to wander carefully through—the wandering is always more interesting anyway.

All that stuff aside, it was an exercise in friendship. We blogged because we loved each other and each other’s voices.

Your blogging is so wide-ranging, with posts on multiple websites and so many different “genres” of posts, with subjects ranging from Milton to television. Can you say something about the differences between the posts you write for different blogs? Do you have a similar style across all of them, or do you cultivate a distinctive voice for each?

Ha! I haven’t thought consciously about this until now, but you’re so right, the style is somewhat context-dependent. If it’s a seventeenth-century culture post, I want to make it accessible, fun, and even (this is the Holy Grail) relevant for nonacademic audiences. The challenge becomes translating a somewhat alien historical artifact or conflict into an engaging read for experts and nonexperts alike. The tone in those posts is colloquial and jokey relative to the political posts, in which I tend to be drearily sincere. As for TV posts, the subject matter is so intrinsically pleasurable that there’s leeway to make the prose more serious—in my online incarnation, I think I’m at my most stylistically “academic” when writing about television.

More generally, though, I like the “blogging voice” because it presumes that thoughts and opinions develop flexibly and responsively—it lets you see thinking in action. Compared to an academic article with its hairspray, its corseting and perfect seams with a bag of extra buttons, a post is like sharing a dressing room. You know how Herrick loves the liquefaction of Julia’s clothes and is taken by the glittering? It’s never about the clothes; it’s about Julia’s relation to them and the narrator’s desire to have that relation to her too. Take Herrick down another half-step, from the “slight disorder” in the dress he finds ideal to a gawkier, more loving and befuddled approach to fabrics and people, and you get blogs. Writer and reader are in the same room, so it’s a way of thinking and speaking that’s social rather than homiletic.

Could you talk a little about your research at Berkeley and some projects you’ve been working on lately? Picking up on the idea of writerly voices, do you find your writing for your blog influencing the style and tone of your academic writing, or vice versa?

Starting with the last question: yep, if only because it’s given me a lot of practice with something I used to find really daunting, namely, writing for and arguing with people. I’m absurdly afraid of confrontation, but even if I weren’t, I think it’s genuinely difficult to disagree publicly in an academic setting. Substantive disagreement is uncomfortable and intimate and involved, and it often takes several steps to clarify the precise grounds of a disagreement and why that dissensus matters. A conference setting is wrong for that kind of back and forth and understandably so; there are too many people, too little time, and the stakes are high. No one wants to have their argument decimated in front of their colleagues, especially in this job market, and maybe there’s a Golden Rule operating wherein one refrains from decimating arguments in turn. Instead, there’s the ritual of listening to a paper read aloud—perhaps the least effective way to absorb a complex argument—then raising a hand to register mild dissent or ask for a clarification. The questions and answers are often quite good, but there’s a decorum to the thing that keeps it from going too far. More than two back-and-forths and the exchange can take on a tense aspect: dissonant, maybe even hostile. Why is this person insisting? you hear the audience think—or think yourself. Q and A’s are supposed to be cursory and there are de facto limits to the depth of engagement. And so academic writing remains intensely isolating and isolated.

It’s utterly strange to me that we don’t spend more time in graduate school workshopping each other’s writing (and I mean the writing itself, in addition to the scholarship and the argument). As if all that matters is the idea apart from its language, as if we were all as much in control of our prose as we could be. On the few occasions when we graduate students write for each other, I think we indulge our worst instincts; panicked that we might be impostors, we tend to write and reward the anxiously abstruse (which should not be confused with the powerfully complex). I wish we all knew each other as writers as well as people. Instead, we huddle in our respective corners until we’ve put so much work into our precious secret document that it would be heartbreaking to change it in any substantial way. There has to be a better way to circulate unpolished work. It’s essential.

Academic writing will always be more complicated and more ambitious than blogging, but I’ve found blogging and tweeting really useful because they force scholars into informal encounters. I find this hugely productive because MY GOD, we need to let the dynamic energy that goes into scholarly work express its dynamism somewhere. Conferences at one time served that purpose, but they’re part of the professionalization machine now; they’re not creative testing grounds, they’re where you recite some finished work to prove your competence and say you did. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say they’re presenting a conference paper, then sigh that they finished it some time ago and are working now on other questions. The same is true for publishing. It takes passion to be an academic and yet the ways in which academics exchange ideas is so antithetical to passion, so glacially slow, that an article might receive a response (if indeed it receives any response at all) a year or so after it was published. Again, the original author will have long since moved onto other projects, and the conversation languishes and dies there, mostly unseen.

Blogging and Tweeting force speed. Twitter especially guarantees a sort of amnesiac impermanence, and that’s useful for a lot of academics who feel able to safely try thoughts and ideas out before developing them into their more formal and rigorous scholarly iterations.  It’s a format that encourages collaboration and dialogue and lets you sometimes say, “hey, look at this! It’s neat,” without having to say anything more about it. Which we should be able to do and say, because so much of the pleasure of academic work lies in those moments of discovery.  Unless you’re in constant contact with your colleagues at your home institution, the main  formats we academics really have for scholarly interaction are the conference and the article. It’s lamentable. That’s not to say that there aren’t potential downsides to “academic Twitter” (there are) but some of the most rewarding and productive academic conversations I’ve had have been with people I’ve never met. I’ve found a great, engaged community of thinkers online. (I should say here that I’m an introvert and not particularly adept at thinking on my feet, so it’s possible that Tweeting and blogging allow for a kind of engaged intellectual sociality that doesn’t make me anxious. I should say too that the conference seminar seems like a really positive development.)

Putting the question of style aside, it’s also true that you share subjects, or at least an early modern focus, between some of your blog posts and essays, correct? Which is the chicken and which is the egg, generally? That is, do you find yourself generating blog posts out of material that didn’t make it into an essay, or do essays ever emerge out of what began as a blog post? Or is the process for generating content for each type of writing more separate than I’m making it out to be?

Hm. Well, my idea, back in the day, was to actually write the dissertation online. I have a fourth blog, now private, that I’ve used for four years as a drafting board and note-taking device; I organize snippets and tag them into the different arguments and angles I might need them for. When that blog was public, I had a category called “Wild Geese To Be Chased At Some Point But Not Now,” and that’s where I put all the weird early modern stuff I tripped on that blew my mind but had no place in my current project.

That quickly became my favorite category. When I made that blog private and Danielle and I stopped blogging together, I needed a platform where I could post stuff like that—miscellaneous stuff that I thought was worth sharing but didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time working on. So that’s what Excremental Virtue became: it’s sort of a bulletin board where I can post my wild geese. Here’s what’s great about that: often other early modern scholars who know a lot more than I do will e-mail me to tell me about something they’ve found that relates to whatever I posted, and that turns into a conversation and sometimes even an article idea.

You rarely post two pieces in a row that are the same “genre” of blog post: you do political posts on Occupy, reflective posts about yourself, cooking and recipe posts, posts that are a series of images with no text, and the list goes on. It seems like all the bloggers are specializing these days; why so wide-ranging? Is there a particular type of post you like best to write?

I guess I have a horror of personal branding. The minute I start feeling like “this is my schtick,” I hightail it like a coward and don’t write that thing again for a good long time (maybe ever). It’s sick. It’s like a fear of commitment or something.

(It’s funny, on Twitter, people sometimes sort the people they “follow” into lists. They title those lists things like “crazies” or “early modernists” and sometimes I’m notified I’m in one and it’s terrifying. I never check because I get freaked if the lists I’m in start looking the same. But I checked just now, and here are a few of the lists I’m on: “etc” “Politicky” “society” “Humanities” “tv watchers and thinkers” “Arts Reporting” “other mediations” “Peanut Gallery” and “A.” My favorites are “A” and “etc”.) Basically, I’m training to be a specialist, but elsewhere I defend the undiscipline to write about whatever I want. The magic of these informal platforms is that real discovery can sometimes happen there (tucked in among the dull, the easy and the weird) when the professional formats feel overly performative or sclerotic.

The “Urine Wheel”

One last, long-ish question, focusing on your “Stuff in Art” series, which was a series of posts entirely composed of images. The images you found for a lot of these posts are not only new to me, they also feel fresh to the internet as a whole, which is quite a remarkable feeling in this post-lolcats world. Let’s take for example your post on painful groins from last year. There is a strange, but very intriguing, tension in a piece like that between the archive and, to briefly invoke websites like Buzzfeed—which also blog posts only of images—the meme. The novelty of your images is one discovered through a kind of literal close reading, in which you actually take the time to look closely at all the tiny little figures in early modern paintings like this one, in order to find bits to extract, like this delightful image. To me, one of your great innovations as a blogger is how you point out the novelty contained within what the typical blogger world brush aside as old and unfunny. Could you speak a bit about those posts where you show your readers funny things you’ve found simply by looking closely at paintings, or searching carefully through an archive (like the “Urine Wheel” to the left)? Do you have any thoughts on skirting the line between archives and memes?

Oh wow, thanks. I loved doing that Stuff in Art series. I went a little nuts. I spent two weeks doing nothing but looking at paintings and creating weird categories. (I have dozens of those that haven’t been published.) One of my favorite close-reading games is to see how the same element gets represented across different time periods in literature or art or whatever, and speculating on how a culture’s attitude toward that object changed or congealed. When Google Art posted high-resolution images of a few works of art, images you could zoom in on forever, I sat down and zoomed and zoomed and didn’t look up for days. My neck was destroyed by the end.

Woman Laughing Alone With Salad

One of the most famous Hairpin memes is Edith Zimmerman’s “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” (see image to the right), which was this brilliant wordless exposé of how ridiculous advertising to women is and has become. I loved what that post helped me see. So I decided to do it with art, in the hopes that it might be similarly revealing and also because I’m such a failure at museum-going. You’re supposed to go, drink in the experience and come away with some larger ineffable impression you didn’t have before of whatever the exhibit was about. Maybe you have a cup of coffee. You ponder, synthesize. I do none of that. I see all these things I’m supposed to absorb, each of which took hundreds of hours and panic—there’s no time!—and I’m totally undone by the bits of information you’re fed while looking at different works of art. You know, the artist’s name, the title, and perhaps a line or two about when the piece was composed. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s deeply necessary, but due to faulty wiring I find it actually undoes my experience of the work of art. I can’t not read it, but when I read it, I’ve lost something. I actually know less than I did before. (This happens to me with the descriptions on the back of rental videos too.) I wish there were a museum where things were captioned: When Cassatt painted that yellow splotch on the third teacup from the left, she’d just gotten over a bout of the flu and was trying to match the color of phlegm. I want to see things in a way I can’t on my own, and I want some sideways connection that brings me closer in a slightly inappropriate way. I loved the exhibit at the MOMA that included Gertrude Stein’s will—that will totally transformed my experience of the exhibit.)

Anyway, after I’d spent eighty-odd hours dissecting paintings, forcing myself to see the stuff I’d never normally notice, and filing that stuff in folders titled things like “Angry Monkeys,” or “Tiny Men,” or “Insouciance, it occurred to me that I was copying Edith’s “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” structure. Since I was already stealing Edith’s idea, why not suggest an art series? Present people with decontextualized objects and let them scroll from chair to chair to painted chair until chairness becomes a neurotic constant weighed down by all these bitter centuries of artists having to paint chairs and think about chairs and shade chairs. Plus it’s a reprieve from the ruthlessness of biographical data. If you click on any of the fragments you can see the thing in context and the name of the painting, but I wanted that to be a deliberate choice. You don’t find out the name of the artist or the date or the title unless you really, really want to.

That’s a really long way of saying that I think the archive, with its marvelous bibliographic minutiae and surgical precision, and the meme, with its jagged juxtapositions that rip context away, can marry beautifully sometimes. The more hooks we have in our heads to snag ideas and hold them, the better.

Posted by Jeffrey Blevins

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