Recently, Cassie Herbert (one of my grad students at Georgetown) and I have been thinking and writing about what we have dubbed peripheral speech. Peripheral speech is a kind of speech within expert communities – that is, any communities held together by shared expertise combined with a shared social identity. These could be professional communities (tort lawyers, physicists, philosophers, philosophers of race, experimental philosophers…) or avocational communities (trekkies, antique car restoration fanatics…). Peripheral speech is not institutionally sanctioned expert speech such as giving colloquia, teaching, or publishing an article, nor is it just expertise-irrelevant chit-chat. It’s speech that draws on the shared expertise and social identity of the community but in an informal way, around the margins of official expert speech. It is often but not always playful. It can include blogging, professional gossip, facebook interactions, and professional ‘insider’ jokes, for instance. (One of our favorite examples is the ongoing circulation of the ‘Philosophers' Proofs that P’.) There is no crisp line between peripheral and regular expert speech, of course, and while peripheral speech is often pleasurable it is not inherently bad or good; it can have powerful positive and negative effects, we argue.
Cassie’s and my main philosophical interest here is in the pragmatics of peripheral speech, and in particular in how the performative force of peripheral speech acts can serve to include and exclude expert community members, as well as to solidify, constitute, and negotiate community norms.
Pragmatics aside, Cassie noticed something suggestive, a couple of days ago, about who engages in peripheral philosophy speech, at least on blogs. She got interested in the gender of the commenters on this blog and the Newapps blog, both of which often take up issues pertaining to the discipline as a whole. Here were her Totally Unscientific and Already Out of Date Yet Suggestive findings. In the last eight blog posts on this blog (as of a couple of days ago) that received at least 16 comments, 71% of the commenters were identifiably male, 7% were identifiably female, 11% were by the post author (rightly a separate category) and 18% were anonymous, pseudonymous, or unidentifiable. In the last eight corresponding posts on Newapps, 55% were identifiably male, 11% female, 24% by the post author, and 11% were anonymous/pseudonymous/unidentifiable. She also found that on both blogs, later commenters were nine times less likely to refer explicitly back to female commenters as to male commenters. It’s not clear that this means that individual women got significantly less uptake, but it is an interesting snapshot of who is in the conversation.
Again this is all wildly unscientific but it is suggestive of interesting trends concerning who engages in peripheral speech in philosophy and who receives uptake for doing so. The relationship between this and issues of participation in formal expert speech is worth exploring, I think. If peripheral speech really does play a central role in solidifying and negotiating expert communities and their boundaries, then who participates in it can have all sorts of interesting consequences.
(Bonus thought: Cassie could not collect meaningful numbers for the Feminist Philosophers blog, because such a high percentage of the bloggers and commenters there use pseudonyms. She pointed out that this in itself has an interesting dynamic to it, since the identity of those folks is somewhere between private and public. Many of us know who is speaking and whom we are addressing when we comment on FPB, and many of us do not. It occurs to me that this in itself raises questions about inclusion, exclusion, and the pragmatics of peripheral speech; the use of semi-private pseudonyms can create a kind of insider discourse and identity for those ‘in the know’ and can have an exclusionary effect on others.)