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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Backlashes and blogs and babyshambles

Posted by John Holbo on 11/13/06 at 01:09 AM

Keith Gessen, n+1 editor, interviewed in in the NY Inquirer. Some anti-blog sentiment is expressed, some anti-n+1 sentiment is examined. Some comparisons with the old New Criterion are ventured.

(via Maud)


oh, my god.  That makes me want to run out and buy this magazine instantly.  Unfortunately I would probably have to run across the pacific ocean.

By on 11/13/06 at 06:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I get it sent to me across the Pacific Ocean, Laura. Admittedly it comes late, so all the cool kids have already read it. But it beats drowning.

By John Holbo on 11/13/06 at 06:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m feeling a bit resentful of the 40USD for international subscriptions.  That’s about the same as a year’s worth of LRB.  Still, my birthday is coming up soon.

By on 11/13/06 at 06:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I read issue #3 and #4, and this interview confirms my decision that I didn’t really want #5.  There’s something about the editorial combination of “we are the only ones who will get harsh on writing that we don’t like, no one else does that” and “we only write about contemporary lit, not about those dusty old dead people” and naive politics that is deadly enough to overcome some of the merits of the individual essays, which are occasionally very good. 

The whole thing is seen in miniature in the description of Gessen’s foray into lit-blogging critique; first, he gets the impression that people don’t read the books that they write about, then he finds out that he’s probably the only one reading the roboposted blog that he’s criticizing.  It’s not just cluelessness—everyone starts out being clueless—it’s a particularly arrogant form of cluelessness, the “I don’t get it, so I’m going to assume that all of it is the same and dismiss it” syndrome.

And look at the description of issue 5.  The decivilizing process as “phones and blogs and email, naturally; also pornography and television”?  Oh wow, I just can’t wait to read those articles from decades ago again.  “torture in Kashmir by the Indian army and torture in secret prisons by the CIA” are worthy subjects, but based on their treatment of global climate change in issue 4, I suspect that it’s going to be another case of good intentions, expertise and/or experience lacking.  Nothing has been so over-written-about as flying cars and the relation between ideas of the future then / contemporary “reality” and ideas of the future now; I suspect that that they haven’t read much of living authors like, say, Bruce Sterling.  So I’m going to pass unless someone on a lit-blog that I read points me to some essay—that they will have read—and recommends it.

By on 11/13/06 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

and “we only write about contemporary lit, not about those dusty old dead people”

Really this just confirms my suspicion that Rich, you insufferable and mean-spirited bore, haven’t read either n+1 or the dusty old people (while those appearing in n+1 quite clearly have - indeed the dusty old people practically speak from every page...Goethe, Babel or Trilling, anyone?).

You substance-lacking lectures on other people’s political naivete (OPPN) are nevertheless always very touching.

In fact, I’ll just go out on a limb here and recommend the essay on Babel to you, Rich.

By Matt on 11/13/06 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, it figures that criticism of n+1 would unfortunately bring Old Matt out of the woodwork.  Matt, what I wrote was a pretty good paraphrase of:

“one of the few rules we have for book reviews is that they can’t be about dead authors. It’s very easy to say—and conservative critics love to do this, this is practically the essence of what they do, whether they’re writing for the New Criterion or the New Republic—I love Tolstoy or Flaubert or whoever, and my contemporaries are not up to that standard. Which—well, it’s fun, I’ll admit—but in the end nothing could be less interesting or useful. And nothing could tell us less about the way we live now.”

Which is precisely the opposite of what those conservative critics love to do, and just as annoying.  It’s more-contemporary-than-thou preciousness, just as the bit about how only n+1 gets harsh on people and cares about ideas is the opposite of literature-as-taste, never-say-a-bad-word criticism, but is just as much of a cliched pose.

By on 11/13/06 at 08:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh sure, the reviews.  And yes, that’s just what conservative critics do.  You even have one around here, if I’m not mistaken.

But in any case, if you are not feeling that Shakespeare is being neglected in fresh book reviews, Rich, what is it you are feeling? 

Sell it to me, seriously, with love.

By Matt on 11/13/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, if this site really did have some new and improved moderation policy, you’d be hearing about it.  But since it doesn’t, I’d guess that we’re headed for more lectures about how it’s lowering the tone to answer a flamer who’s just called you an insufferable and mean-spirited bore.

But, sure, I’ll give it a try.  First, you seem to think that an editorial attitude is not an attitude—that what Gessen describes as the culture of a magazine mysteriously confines itself to choice of book review, and never is seen elsewhere.  Gessen writes: “But the point for us is we’re much more focused on the idea of a story’s or essay’s necessity—is it necessary, does it explain our situation, some part of our situation? If so, then we’ll edit it until it’s good. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good it is.” Matt, if you were a better reader, maybe you’d be able to see this omnipresent editorial hand by reading n+1, without Gessen having to spell it out—or maybe you like it.

So what I’m feeling from n+1 is, yes, a kind of naivete.  The same naivete that is so evident in many of your posts, actually.  It’s like they think they’re the first people in the world who have ever discovered the “does it explain our situation?” pose, and that it’s bright and new.

And yes, as I said above, some of the essays are very good.  It’s one of the better magazines out there.  But I’m going to pass on issue 5 unless some recommended individual essay or essays make it worth the $10 to me, because the whole is slightly less than its parts.

By on 11/13/06 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I was just thinking that maybe starting some moderation would be a good idea. Matt, please note that you are the instigator here, because Rich wrote a perfectly well-mannered comment, which you disagreed with in ill-mannered fashion. Rich then arched his eyebrow somewhat. And it is sure to go downhill from there. So let’s just nip it in the bud: no more of these endless bad blood verbal sparring matches. Matt, if you want to tangle with Rich, not because you disagree with something he says, but because you feel he’s been riding you for 18 months: then don’t. If you simply want to correct him concerning the point at issue, you can do so more politely. I could lecture Rich about how he shouldn’t allow himself to be drawn out by someone rolling in and insulting him gratuitously. But I always allow myself to be drawn out (although I’m trying to do better). It is true that my high-handed rhetorical style, on these occasions (which is similar to Rich’s) is just as calculated to annoy as Matt’s. (And here I am doing it again!) Well, we are all weak mortals. The Valve’s comments will not become a happy place until this sort of bad blood nonsense doesn’t happen, whoever is at fault. So kindly don’t help it to happen. And I’ll try not to let it happen either.

I also do not want a meta-discussion of who is actually at fault and who started the whole thing, back in 2005. That would not be edifying.

By John Holbo on 11/13/06 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Valve!

Laura, please subscribe to n+1! It’s true $40 is a lot, but it reflects our costs--it’s 10 dollars to airmail the magazine to Australia. However, if you look at the Back Issues page, you’ll see there’s a loophole right now where the mailing costs aren’t reflected, so it evens out. Kind of.

Also, we’re getting better envelopes so the issues won’t get so beat up on their way over.

Matt--thank you, as always, for your spirited defense. I don’t know if Rich deserved it. But, Rich, I, being me, can see where Matt is coming from. I think, having read 3 and 4, you’re entitled to quit. Those were good issues.

In terms of blogs, I’m absolutely certain you and I are talking about different blogs.  Someday in the future people will wonder--in this future where everything is some form of blog--how it is people had entire conversations about “blogs.” That said, some preliminary comments can be ventured about specific types of blogs--and I think I was pretty clear about which ones I meant: reading blogs that have turned into announcements pages for publishers, in the way that Gawker, for example, began as a private kind of New York diary and turned into--Gawker. 

As for my pose being cliche--maybe, but I came by it honestly. And the flying cars article is not about what we can learn from past visions of the future--it’s actually about flying cars. Which are coming soon.


By Keith Gessen on 11/14/06 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Keith, if I hadn’t been annoyed by Matt, I probably would have used “stance” rather than “pose”.  The honesty of the stance doesn’t matter so much as its style—after all, the conservative critic that you described honestly enjoys writing “I love Tolstoy or Flaubert or whoever, and my contemporaries are not up to that standard.”

And in terms of blogs, I agree that you and I are talking about different ones.  That’s rather the point, though.  You can find blogs to illustrate any conceivable point about blogging that you’d like to make.  If you want to say something about lit-blogging, and illustrate it with announcements pages for publishers, you can do that.  But since those aren’t the blogs that most people are actually reading, it’s a point that says more about what you believe than about what’s actually going on in contemporary lit-blogging.

At any rate, please don’t take this as a screed about how I’m never going to read n+1 again.  I may well end up buying issue 5 after all.  It’s just that I’m going to let someone else review it for me first.  Not with regard to whether they like it as “a matter of taste, of obsession”, but whether it really has something to say about pornography and TV and governmental torture that hasn’t already been said, either in the dusty past or the too-non-literary present.

By on 11/14/06 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, by saying that I came by it honestly I did not mean that I honestly enjoyed it, but rather that it emerged from a good-faith analysis of the current situation--which, I would still insist, is primarily dominated right now by conservative critics on the one hand (at TNR, and everywhere to the right of them) and literature-is-nice-and-good-for-you critics on the other (this has always been a staple of middlebrow literary culture, but now it’s come to infect more high-brow institutions as well--in the university-affiliated lit mags and, yes, in the lit-blogs as well).

I see I’m caught in a contradiction in terms of the sociology of reading blogs, because I claimed that no one except me was reading the blogs I was criticizing. I guess in absolute numbers that’s true. Still, it *feels* like people are reading those blogs, which I realize is not the same thing. A lot of it comes down to which world you’re closer to--I’m much closer now to the publishing world than the academic world, and the blogs I’m talking about reflect that. I think it’s more accurate to say that I have some reading practices--which I should change--rather than that I had a pre-formed belief and then sought out the blogs to prove it.
We agree that there are all kinds of blogs in the world, and we agree that saying anything about blogs in general is meaningless. So that’s pretty good. Although, in fairness to myself, I prefaced my short comment on blogs in the interview by saying exactly that.

OK on issue 5. I do think we have something to say about all those things--pornography, and torture, and tv--and even cell phones and email and more pornography--that have not been said, at least not in this way, and not in this combination. And I appreciate your saying that you liked things in the magazine, even as there were things that bugged you about it. It’ll probably remain that way--but, we’ll see.


By on 11/14/06 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Keith, as I see it, the problem with your comment is that it indulges in a tired rhetorical dodge: you follow “of course it’s a medium, so we shouldn’t generalize” with “the problem with this medium is X, Y and Z.” Were we not well-acquainted with television criticism—or more to the point, were we not acquainted with 19<sup>th</sup> and early 20<sup>th</sup> criticisms of the novel—your concession would’ve scanned like an admission followed by unfortunate, but unintended, hypocrisy.  But I imagine most of n+1‘s readers are familiar with the feint and saw the concession for what it was—namely, a prelude to dismissal.  Which is fine, really, an opinion you’re welcome to, not to mention an apt description of its intended targets.  I don’t read those blogs, however, so when you speak of them as if they represent the whole of lit-blogging, I wonder whether you merely cherry-pick examples.  None of the lit-blogs I regularly read double as publicity departments.  When they seem to—like our recent book-event on Walter Benn Michaels—I don’t think we can be accused of not having read the books we hawk.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/14/06 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I appreciated a lot of things about what Keith said in that interview, and I’m going to subscribe to n+1 on the strength of it and some of the writing published on the website.

I agree with him about what are called litblogs, which I’d say are the kinds of blogs that are listed on the aggregator Metaxucafe.  Most of these are not actually about reading, instead they’re links to book reviews in the papers or descriptions of books the blogger bought, or intends to read, or reports on readings or something else connected to the publicity machine.  Blogging is fast and public and reading is slow and private.  They can intersect from time to time and the results can be very good but they don’t naturally fit together.

A lot of academically inflected blogs are more or less the same thing.  The lingo is different but the same whiff of the blogger demonstrating his or her fitness for advancement in the institution persists.  And good for them, if that’s what those bloggers want to do.  I don’t want to read it, that’s all. 

As these are the kinds of blogs Keith criticised I didn’t think he was having a slap at blogs in general.  Certainly wouldn’t call it backlash material.

By on 11/14/06 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura--could you give an example of the type of careerist academic blog you’re referring to? This one?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/14/06 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No to both questions.

I can’t give you examples because the type of blog I had in mind is too boring and I can’t remember the names of any.

The resident troll here at the Valve likes to rant about careerism.  I disagree that Valve posters are careerist.

Anyway, let’s not have a conversation about blogging versus some other thing.  That would be lame.

By on 11/14/06 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even about blogging versus fishing? I don’t think that would be lame. I’m teaching “Big Two-Hearted River” tomorrow. Could you have the same kind of experience blogging now? Perhaps.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/14/06 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Keith Gessen: “a good-faith analysis of the current situation--which, I would still insist, is primarily dominated right now by conservative critics on the one hand (at TNR, and everywhere to the right of them) and literature-is-nice-and-good-for-you critics on the other”

I’m going to just branch off the thread at this point.  Isn’t the current situation, at least with regard to literature, one of questioning how to deal with abundance?  There are more people writing than ever before, more translations, more years of already-published works, more appreciation of low culture.  That seems to me like one of the main critical problems, and one that the different strategies referred to above are all attempts to deal with.

The conservative critic deals with the problem by saying that you should only read the old, and only the canonical old.  The “current situation” critic stamps an imaginary best used by date on everything, or at least says that you should only look at what seems relevant to an ever-shifting present moment.  The literature-is-nice-and-good-for-you critic says that it doesn’t matter what you read; it’s all good for you.  There may be a few evaluative critics left still trying to create time-invarying pyramids of both old and new works with the great ones at the top, who tell you to read downwards.  Academic critics have fiefdoms.  And of course the publishing industry ones recommend that you read whatever has just been published.

I’ve already mentioned how I think that the conservative critic and the current situation critic are linked.  There’s another kind of criticism that I’m interested in, sort of the linked inverse of the literature-is-nice-and-good-for-you stance.  Something like the “literature is mostly bad, and bad for you, but we do it anyway” stance.

I’m not talking about faux lower-classism, non-academicism, anti-intellectualism, and so on.  What I mean are the people who get together, in groups, to write, without the benefit of one of the perhaps justly scorned professional writing instructors.  In these groups, everyone’s a writer, everyone reads each other’s work (or does spoken word), everyone’s a critic.  Almost everyone is pretty bad, in the sense that these groups often meet in bookstores or libraries and it would be easy to stick out a hand in any direction and pick up better writing than what you make.  Almost everyone knows this. 

This critical stance solves the problem of abundance by saying that it is most important that you read your friends’ work.  Yes, your friend is probably not a very good writer, at least in comparison to a quick cruise through the canon in any direction.  And you shouldn’t lose the aesthetic sense that tells you this.  But at the end, it’s not what is most important.  What’s most important is that you all try to get better, and mostly don’t succeed, or succeed in small ways that only you and your friends will ever notice.

That’s really the world that a good deal of lit-blogging comes out of.  What Keith Gessen wrote about, the individual person’s impulse that later becomes Gawker—that clearly doesn’t happen to everyone; there are some things that become publisher’s blogs that no one reads, and one Gawker.  I’m not just referring to fiction writers or poets, it also applies to critics and, well, whatever kind of scholarly focus John Emerson considers Idiocentrism to have.  Hell, it even includes academics.  Look at John Holbo and the work that must have gone into a book that has sold 16 printed copies and a hundred or two downloads. 

Of course this too is a stance—a vaguely Whitmanesque one, I suppose.  I prefer it to most of the other stances available.

By on 11/14/06 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a little hurt that Gessen showed up here rather than LS. Hmpf… Not that we weren’t, like, with you guys right from day one or so. Holbo found out about you from us, I’m sure, and… never mind.

By CR on 11/14/06 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the record: I found out about n+1 when Henry Farrell kindly gave me a copy of #3.

By John Holbo on 11/14/06 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So you’re saying you don’t read LS, eh? Or not carefully enough, is it? Fine. I guess we’ll have to stop writing it expressly for your consumption.

By CR on 11/15/06 at 12:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As to the wide bore, narrow bore LS-targeting question, I can only think that aiming to bore more widely, as it were, would constitute good intellectual discipline.

Plus it would make the back of my neck feel less itchy, in that ‘curses, my enemy has hit ‘publish’ again!’ kind of way.

[those are both jokes]

By John Holbo on 11/15/06 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

God, John. Always with the drilling and valving and plumbing and boring. One might thing you’ve got a hangup about your equipment or something.

[intellectual equipment, I meant, of course...]

By CR on 11/15/06 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I kid, I kid. As Adolph Loos said: the plumber is the indispensable man of the age. (Of course that was a different age, and he was quite mad, in a modernist way.)

[I used my intellectual equipment to make that joke. how did you like it?]

By John Holbo on 11/15/06 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Short penis jokes, to be precise.

By on 11/15/06 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I prefer to think of my jokes as ‘fun-sized’.

By John Holbo on 11/15/06 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well they’re in good company.

By on 11/15/06 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like the “fun-sized” one better, but not as much as Victor’s contribution.

Well, we’ve f’d up this thread. But at least, you know, we’re playing more nicely than we normally do. And we’re being insanely entertaining while we do it, I’m sure everyone agrees. (Can you hear them clicking to refresh from Singapore? Because it’s deafening here in the homeland). I know Victor’s enjoying the show…

By CR on 11/15/06 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, and it was very gracious of me to let Victor have the last word like that.

By John Holbo on 11/15/06 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of getting the discussion back on track: checking out that n+1 nonsense blog, I notice that Gessen and Kunkel were on a panel on “The Function of the Little Magazine At The Present Time” at Columbia. Since I’m supposed to give a talk with that title - more or less - at the MLA in December, I wonder whether there might be any documentary evidence or eyewitness accounts in the aftermath of the Columbia panel?

By John Holbo on 11/15/06 at 02:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I bet Gessen could give you an eyewitness account.

By ben wolfson on 11/15/06 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Back-pats all around!
...Make that a Bat-Pack for John Holbo.
Actually, this thread was indeed very fun to read. Thanks.

By on 11/15/06 at 05:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich’s post strikes as very good and clarifying. He’s describing a small, local literary community, largely self-sustained. Of *course* if you think than when I or anyone else disparages blogs what I’m talking about is the Valve, or Long Sunday--of course you’ll get angry. But that’s precisely the sort of thing I’m *not* talking about. It’s what I meant by my initial disclaimer. Someone asks you what you think of “blogs.” In a way the question is meaningless. In other ways--here I go again, Scott--it’s not meaningless. I do think blogs have a logic, but I’ve been pretty clear all along what I take the main current of blogging to be--and if you read my nonsense blog, I think the targets are pretty obvious. (As the good people on Long Sunday have discerned.) Rich says Gawker is an isolated incident. Obviously its success (of a certain kind) is unique; but Gawker is the model to look at, not the Valve. For every Woods Lot, there are a hundred Ed Rants. For every Josh Marshall, a thousand Daily Koses. (I wonder if that first assertion could be proved… if you did string searches, say, for appearances of the term “asshole” to describe some contemporary writer, versus discussions of Blanchot--yeah, I think 100:1 would be a pretty conservative estimate.)

I will add, parenthetically, that I think it’s a mistake to call the Valve or Long Sunday “blogs” at all--they seem to me to come from the tradition of the List-Serv discussion board, even if initially most of the members had, and still have, more traditional reading diary type blogs. The Valve or Long Sunday--in general the kind of community Rich describes--would not ultimately care if anyone read their discussions or not outside their own community. In fact, to answer CR’s question, while I was very happy--and surprised, actually--to see that people on Long Sunday agreed with me about lit-blogs, I didn’t feel like it was a place I could, or rather should, post--it felt like a private conversation, which I liked, but not something I should be jumping into.

Part of the reason it’s so important for me to establish these terms--well, part of it is just so these conversations can go on in a reasonably civil fashion, in the future. But another is that n+1 is publishing a pretty tough critique of blogs in the next issue, and it would be too bad if the smartest people on these discussion boards simply shut it out--we could revisit these questions when we have something more than an off-hand emailed comment to launch off from. In a way I feel like one of these people who talks about “the Arab world.” Is there something about the Arab world that is causing it to produce terrorism? Well, yes and no. There are great Arab intellectuals--humane, liberal, some of them trying to fuse Islam and enlightenment. They hold reasonable, informed discussions on the internet. Meanwhile, in some dark corner of Karachi, a blow-job joke is being planned.

By Keith Gessen on 11/15/06 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Damn it, Keith, I just started raising these hackles…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/15/06 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For every Josh Marshall, a thousand Daily Koses.

I am going to take issue with this statement.  Name a second Daily Kos.

I am not sure what you think characterizes Daily Kos that makes it so common, but to mind there really isn’t anything else out there like it.

By on 11/15/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the very generous engagement, Keith.  (If only it occured more often!)

they seem to me to come from the tradition of the List-Serv discussion board, even if initially most of the members had, and still have, more traditional reading diary type blogs

This sounds about right to me.  Though as likely someone will soon point out we do also - like TV - often hold open “symposiums” of aspiring to essay-as-opposed-to-chitchat quality, and in a more formal vein (i.e, potentially almost publishable), if still very hospitable to strangers and creative tangents...I’d like to think that we also mix genres fairly liberally, and sometimes hold a wider (lurking, or future hazarding) audience in mind, I suppose. 

It is certainly futile to compete with Kos.

By Matt on 11/15/06 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is also the coffeehouse aspect and appeal.

By Matt on 11/15/06 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Literally nothing produces blog comments like linking to an article critical of blogging.

(Since I have unbanned myself from The Valve, I hereby also unban Rich from The Weblog.  Rich, if we ever start to get in a fight, I encourage you to visit The Weblog and beat me up there, out of deference to John’s weak stomach for flamewars.)

By Adam Kotsko on 02/17/07 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe these critics just haven’t found the right blog.

By Claire on 02/18/07 at 04:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Kotsko, with this banning-of-self and quick contributions and subsequent unbanning, is rapidly turning into the Jay-Z of blog commenting. I approve (not of Jay-Z Himself, though - overrated self-absorbed hack).

By waxbanks on 02/19/07 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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