U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Scott Eric Kaufman (1976-2016)

Scott Eric KaufmanThis past Sunday, just a few weeks shy of his fortieth birthday, the critic, blogger, and journalist Scott Eric Kaufman (known to many readers as “SEK”) passed away following a long illness. Scott’s work is probably familiar to most of the readers of this blog. If it isn’t, the blog Lawyers, Guns, & Money, for which Scott wrote since 2009, has set up a memorial page, with links to remembrances of him, his work at various blogs and online journals, and the GoFundMe that his family set up to help defray the cost of his weeks in intensive care. I never met Scott in real life and my online interactions with him were always slight and transient: comments back and forth on Facebook (where we were friends) or in comments sections of LG&M and other blogs. But like thousands of other readers of LG&M, the AV Club (where Scott’s Internet Film School (2013-2015) was short-lived but beloved), Crooked Timber, Salon, Raw Story, the Valve, Edge of the American West, and his own personal blog Acephalous (among other places online), I feel like I’ve lost a friend.  But there are many others, including some on this blog, who knew him far better than I did, so I won’t try to compete with their memories of him.

Rather than attempt to offer a comprehensive obituary, I want to write instead about two aspects of SEK’s career that are of particular interest to this blog: his path-breaking work as an academic blogger and his role as a public intellectual.

I

Scott first became widely known for his blog Acephalous, which he began in early 2005 while he was writing his doctoral dissertation in English at UC Irvine.[1]  Scott started the blog pseudonymously, writing under the name A. Cephalous, but this only lasted a couple months. By that summer, he was writing under his real name. He wrote about life as a graduate student and about other topics of intellectual interest (he would later say that he wrote for his blog to get away from his dissertation).  Soon he began to make a name for himself on larger platforms in the emerging academic blogosphere.  “A. Cephalous” wrote the second comment on the very first post at The Valve, the literary studies group blog founded by John Holbo in March 2005, right around the same time that Acephalous appeared. That June, Scott, writing now under his actual name, became a regular blogger at The Valve, where he would eventually become an editor, in which role he recruited our very own Andy Seal to join the blog some four years later.[2]

It’s worth remembering what those early days of blogging, in general, and academic blogging in particular, were like (a decade online feels like a generation).  On the one hand, in the early 2000s, the blogosphere was the topic of much breathless cultural journalism.  In May 2002, Newsweek even asked “Will the Blogs Kill Old Media?[3] But while the blogosphere was the hot new thing that was redefining what the internet was about (remember, this was before the advent of today’s dominant social media platforms), the emerging academic blogosphere was the source of much consternation among senior academics, as Scott McLemee recalls his memorial piece on SEK for Inside Higher Ed.  Not surprisingly, a lot of young academic bloggers elected to stay pseudonymous.[4]  As a grad student writing under his own name, SEK argued vigorously for the legitimacy of academic blogging. And this, too, helped him make a name for himself.  He was invited to take part in a number of the early conference panels on academic blogging. On November 1, 2007, SEK wrote “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogs” for Inside Higher Ed, a piece that nicely captures both what blogging did for him personally – he recounts senior academics describing themselves as “intimidated” to meet him – and more importantly how academic blogging was creating and transforming academic communities.

By the time SEK wrote that Inside Higher Ed piece in November 2007, this blog was a little over nine months old. I didn’t join the USIH blog until 2009 (I think I have that date correct)…at any rate, I wasn’t around for its beginnings. But I have a hard time imagining that it would have come into existence if it weren’t for academic blogging pioneers like Scott Eric Kaufman.  One quality that comes through SEK’s writing and is affirmed by all who dealt with him over the years is what a terrific person he was; “brilliant, kind, creative, compassionate, loyal, understanding, supportive, hilarious, unique” is how one friend described him recently. His enthusiasm and support for academic blogging in its early days helped establish the form. Scott is at the very least a great uncle to this blog.  And in his encouraging Andy Seal and giving him a larger platform for his blogging brilliance, Scott had a more direct impact on this blog’s future.

II

Though Scott was usually identified early on as an academic blogger, the range of his posts always extended beyond the traditionally academic. Over the years, Scott became known as much, if not more, for writing about culture, and later politics, as he did for writing about academia or traditional academic topics. In particular, Scott was a masterful analyst of what he called “visual rhetoric.” His posts on movies, television, and comics were often brilliant.  And as he spread his writing beyond the academic blogosphere (though it was always, or at least almost always, online), he seems to have reached many more people. Scott received his PhD in 2008, but never landed a tenure-track job. He spent the last years of his life outside academia in a variety of paid online writing gigs, first for the AV Club, then Raw Story, and eventually Salon (and I’ve recently discovered he also wrote for the Onion and Clickhole).  Though some of this work was clickbait for cash, at its best it gave him the opportunity to write and think brilliantly.

In short, Scott became a true public intellectual. In a way he was one even was he was an academic blogger over a decade ago. Public intellectuals have long been a major topic on this blog and at S-USIH’s conferences. And, in a lot of ways, Scott was a pretty classic public intellectual: a brilliant polymath, working outside the academy, scrounging up places to publish his work, and reaching a broader audience than most academics will ever reach.[5]

But I’ve been struck by the fact that none of the many tributes to Scott Eric Kaufman has used the term “public intellectual” to describe him.  Despite the breadth and reach of Scott’s work, the fact that his entire public career was essentially conducted online makes him something of a niche figure.  I doubt very much whether the New York Times or any other major print publication will note his passing. Yet I truly think he was one of the most distinctive public intellectuals of his generation.  His brilliance, his wit, his distinctive way of writing and being all made a mark in the medium that he helped define over the course of the last eleven years or so (internet years being like dog years).  He died far, far too young. I feel as if we were robbed of four decades more (at least) of his distinctive voice and mind.  I’m happy to say that efforts seem to be afoot to preserve his writing online (and perhaps even to publish a book of his online work).  But I fear that his life and his work may get lost in the shuffle of history. His name absent from the New York Times and its best-seller lists. His work hard to find unless you’re looking for it…and once found hard to place in the context of the online conversations in which it was written.

So consider this post a marker for future intellectual historians: when you write about the emergence of the blogosphere, about American cultural criticism and about public intellect in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, don’t forget Scott Eric Kaufman. I fear that I have not come close to adequately capturing what made him so special. But that’s ok. Seek out his work, read it for yourself, and consider the ways in which he changed the way we write and think online…in other words, more generally, the way we write and think.

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[1] Kaufman, Scott Eric. 2008. “Maximal Diversity: Non -Darwinian Evolutionary Theory in American Fiction, 1895–1910.” Order No. 3338383, University of California, Irvine. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/docview/304659256?accountid=12964.

[2] The Valve shut down in 2012, but its entire archive is still available online at the original address.

[3] Their answer was that “[b]logs are a terrific addition to the media universe. But they pose no threat to the established order.”

[4] In fact, a lot of early blogs, academic and otherwise, were written under pseudonyms, a practice that, like so much else having to do with blogs, was the source of its own mini moral panic on the part of a number on non-pseudonymous bloggers.

[5] It’s telling that John Holbo’s kickoff post on The Valve back in 2005, on which Scott wrote the second comment, was about “little magazines.” The academic blogosphere had fairly traditional notions of public intellect in its DNA right from the start.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ben: I read this several days ago, and meant to write what follows then. Thank you. Thanks for putting this up.

    I encountered Scott’s work sometime in 2006, shortly after he started Acephalous. I had been reading various blogs during the last year of my dissertation work, for amusement and a growing sense that they were a smart, alternative source for cultural and political commentary. Of course I was drawn to blogs that wrote on historical topics. That brought me to Scott, to SEK. I just searched Acephalous, and it appears I left many comments there—more than I remembered in the 2006-2008 period. I didn’t start Facebook until later, so blogs were my online community for a few years. Scott had an online presence I admired, for his daring, wit, and intelligence. We also had another shared interest: baseball. I didn’t follow his team, the Mets, but we both admired Joe Posnanski, and baseball generally.

    That’s it for now. Again, Ben, thanks for putting this up here. – TL

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