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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

It Starts with the Loss of a Semicolon

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 12/10/05 at 01:48 PM

The most famous paragraph in “bad writing discussions”:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace--by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures. (Adorno, “Punctuation Marks.” Notes to Literature. Vol. 2. [Columbia UP, 1991], 95.)

Since you are probably too familiar with the debate this paragraph recalls, I’ll instead consider what aspects of Adorno’s argument might be relevant to academic blogging. People don’t like to read long things on-line. (Sorry, John). I’ve heard many claim that five-hundred words is about their limit for reading blog posts. Comments on posts don’t work very well as a means of fostering careful discussion. Most blogging software, including this site’s, simply publishes a flat list of comments in chronological order. Even the well-known sites that use comment-threading technologies dating from the Holocene have their own problems to contend with, which generally are related to the quantity of their commenters. The various moderation schemes which rely on community involvement rather than the diligent attention of a small number of people are unsuccessful.

Is the link, then, a loss or addition? Is the link a punctuation mark? (Trackbacks too, trackbacks are dead.) How about if links didn’t always go to the same location but either a) went to the original intended location, b) went to a random location, or c) asked the follower to provide a new location? Would this continue to ratify imbecility? Should the posts themselves be reader-editable? The Wiki-ization of blogs, using the technology to filter levels of sediment, commentary, or disputation is one potential solution. But having the content of each post be dynamically changed with each read is better. The much-lamented Adequacy.org used, or claimed to use, as I remember, an automated link-generator. The intent of this was to poke gentle fun at the superfluous linking cultures of Slashdot and Kuro5hin, I think, but it has considerable potential. The author of the posts flags several phrases that would then be searched in a variety of databases using the Google and Amazon APIs, scholarly indexes, del.ic.ious, etc. The blogging software would randomly generate links from one of the sources and, using cookies, regenerate them from deeper tiers within the search results for each revisit. If I flagged the phrase “evolutionary theism,” for example, the first visitor might see this article about Frank Norris’s The Octopus the first time and this piece concerning the “dialectical affinities between East and West” the next [Both JSTOR links]. Another user would go find this book about Alfred Russel Wallace on the first visit.

Part of the articulation and shape of the blog is determined by its format. Bradley Dilger has some thoughts on the ubiquity of the grid in web design, and a palimpsest or overlay on a grid is still a grid.


Not responding to everything, but when you have a good link it’s superior to a footnote, since it can be clicked immediately without going to the library. In writing, links can also be used for introductory or background material or side issues that will be important to some but not all readers, without junking up the main text.

I do find myself reading less since I’ve been on the internet, and that’s bad. I’m sort of running on fat reserves from 50 years of hard work.

I’d like to know how prevalent the 500-2000 word limit is. If it’s widespread, it would seem that internet writing tends toward shallowness.

In the past I have suggested an internet publication format like Books-on-Demand or e-books which would allow readers to print off long pieces in attractive, booklike bound form (ie. not a stabled sheaf of loose pages.)

By John Emerson on 12/10/05 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I believe that Kevin Drum--CAL PUNDIT--made a similar claim recently about having less patience for reading now. I’d be more worried about it affecting people’s _ability_ to understand what they’ve read.

By Jonathan on 12/10/05 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know if I read more or less since I started blogging, but I certainly have become much more adept at categorizing and dismissing things I read, which I take to be very similar to understanding them.

The link as punctuation mark troubles me somewhat, particularly those links that are phrased as “click here”—normally “here” points away from itself, but in this case, the word itself corresponds with its referent.  When links don’t draw attention to themselves in that way, however, they can function in the same way as literary allusions, only without the uncertainty.  As if T. S. Eliot, who after all did provide his own footnotes, had produced a hypertext version of The Waste Land linking to Dante, Augustine, Buddha, that stupid memoir that he stupidly refers to in the first few lines....  No more ambiguity—at least that would save us the trouble of many tedious “source-seeking” scholarly articles and force people to do the hard work of interpretation rather than merely settling for collation.

By Adam Kotsko on 12/10/05 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"First they came for the semicolons, and I said nothing ...”

By John Holbo on 12/11/05 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you’re going to do that one, it really should be “First they came for the semicolons, and I said nothing my sentences don’t really need them.”

By on 12/11/05 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(I edited Jonathan’s comment above to un-vanish a word that pMachine had decided to efface rather than emphasize.)

By Ray Davis on 12/13/05 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Ray. I’m curious, of course, if you or anyone else has any comments on the potential effectiveness not to mention feasibility of my proposal here. I think that technically the modifications I propose would not be terribly difficult. Would people prefer to read something like this, however? Could they be trained to for their own good?

By Jonathan on 12/13/05 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Could they be trained to for their own good?”

Just because you like the aggressive ambiguity thing doesn’t mean that it’s good.

By on 12/13/05 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Definitely maybe.

By Jonathan on 12/13/05 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always looked at (and used) links as a sort of citation, and so would be hesitant to randomize them. Though if we could randomize some, that would be interesting. Dynamic vs. Static hyperlinks.

Oh, and semicolons are like an apendix: useless except when they act up.

By Keith on 12/13/05 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

They’re not being randomized, just distributed over a broader range. And there could still be hard-links.

By Jonathan on 12/13/05 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And the two would be indistinguishable unless you started to click on each link twice.

I was trying to think of what the right term for this kind of programming would be.  I think that “prosthetic ambiguity” fits.  If you’re really concerned about Adorno’s “ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures”, the way to do something about it isn’t to mix in a mechanical randomization apparatus.

By on 12/13/05 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CSS could take care of that, if we wanted it to be taken care of.

I see that you think that. But I’m not sure why.

By Jonathan on 12/13/05 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: “I’m curious, of course, if you or anyone else has any comments on the potential effectiveness not to mention feasibility of my proposal here.”

Well—and I realize that this is a case of the marbles calling the coffee grounds scattered—I can’t really pick out a single proposal from your post, which plays tag with a whole host of web-rhetoric issues. I could tell you that I feel differently from you on most of those issues, but that much is probably obvious from my own online writings and blogroll.

Link as punctuation mark? I don’t use it that way as a writer, although I know (from being told) that many readers read it that way. That, along with the transience problem, is why I’ve more and more tried to bring in local caches of the most important aspect of the linked-to material, with blockquotes or with “title” attributes. But as footnote, as joke, or as a throat-clearing entry to an existing conversation, the link carries more specific import than a “trust me” glyph might.

Randomized or customizable link? I’ve used Google search links to get some of that effect when it seemed called for, or when I knew the target was unreliably situated. It would be a simple enough matter to use web services to pluck truly random results from a collection of dynamically determined candidates.

By Ray Davis on 12/14/05 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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