Points: Of Origin

What is the point of an academic group blog, my co-managing editor Joe Spillane wants to know? It’s a necessary and pleasurable adjunct to an academic print culture that, while maybe not quite dead, can hardly be termed in the pink of health.  The book I published last year on addiction and recovery appeared in a respectable hardcover edition, with copies priced “low” at  $35 each.  As I write, it’s hovering just above the 1-millionth most popular mark on amazon.com.

When the book was done, like a good academic I took some material that didn’t make the final cut and re-purposed it into an article.  After four months on the editor’s desk at a peer-reviewed journal that shall remain nameless, I got a revise-and-resubmit request.  I made the requested changes and returned the piece; after another four months, it was rejected by a different round of editors whose complaints were completely different from those of the first readers.  That was my writing year.

Sure, the book got me tenure, but you don’t have to be Peggy Lee to wonder, “is that all there is to a circus?” One of the points of Points is to create a new space for informed and intelligent writing about alcohol and drug history and policy, a space relatively unconstrained by the quality control mechanisms that both legitimate and hamstring  traditional academic publishing: stale genres, obsessive gatekeeping, and a degree of specialization that pretty much negates the possibility for building broad audiences.  An academic group blog can (should, anyway) connect authors to audiences in a smaller, faster loop, one conducive to creating that much-ballyhooed but strangely elusive bird, an intellectual “community.”

Joe notes correctly that the syringes that give this blog its name are “embedded within fluid legal and policy contexts that matter a great deal to actual people.”  Like a traditional print document– a broadside, article, or book–and equally talismanic to their users, they are material artifacts that derive meaning from and give meaning to the intangible flows of culture and the specific political economy within which they are created.   This blog lacks that materiality.  As a result, it also lacks the “aura” that Walter Benjamin has argued distinguishes “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”; without aura, it cannot aspire to the prestige of the printed word.

But as the American Heritage Dictionary, cited above, reminds us, there’s something to be said for putting books aside and just making “points.”  Blog posts will not replace scholarly publications (at least, your managing editors hope they don’t) but they can “punctuate” the printed discourse of the academy.  Offering “position without extension,” they can capture ideas before they calcify, and generate dialogue before their originator is already tired of them.  And then there’s “salien[ce],” the quality of being “prominent,  conspicuous, or striking” or, in military parlance, “a projection of the forward line into enemy-held territory.”  The writings here are very much intended as a forward line striking out onto hostile ground– in this case the cultivated ignorance that is the mainstream view of alcohol and drug history.

If the writings here strike faster and sharper than their print corollaries, and become prominent and conspicuous as a result, our work will be accomplished.  Let the pointing begin.

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