Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Other Spaces, Other Things
To some extent, I agree with Adam Kotsko that “Meta-blogging is the greatest vice yet developed by humankind.” Blogging about blogging can become just another variation on navel-gazing, and the triumphalist celebration of blogs by some prominent political blogs can be especially obnoxious. But at this point in the development of the weblog as a forum for serious discourse (at least potentially), Adam is right to “wonder what exactly can be done in a blog post.” In some ways, seriously-intended blogs and blog posts can be an alternative to conventional print publications, both academic and general-interest, in others they are best seen as a complement to print, but it doesn’t seem likely, or even desirable, that they simply imitate the conventions of journalism or academic scholarship. Therefore, those of us who do see a place for blogging in intellectual/literary discussion ought to be making the attempt to clarify, for ourselves and our readers, the distinctive nature of its contribution, what indeed “can be done” using this medium to engage in substantive debate or commentary about literature, philosophy, or any of the other traditionally “academic” subjects.
Surely it can’t be that, as Adam puts it, blog posting is “best suited to matters that can be treated conversationally,” if by “conversational” Adam means “casual” or “superficial.” Certainly blog posts can be casual or superficial, but I see nothing in the nature of the form that requires they be so. In his own response to Adam’s post, John Holbo makes a point that I want to echo: “Blog posts are short, but obviously no one thinks there are no arguments worth making at less than a thousand words.” Good arguments and, in the case of literary criticism, compelling readings can indeed be made in a “short” blog post; some arguments and analyses would greatly benefit, in fact, if they were confined to 1500 words or so and shed themselves of the formulaic padding “long” forms sometimes superfluously require. Morover, I can’t see why longer essay-posts treating a topic in a more expansively developed way are inherently impossible: I’ve read many such posts, and one would think that readers interested in the topic at hand would be willing to read a well-thought out treatment of it whatever the medium in which it’s printed. (Screen fatigue seems to me a pretty inadequate excuse for avoiding a perfectly good piece of writing simply because it’s online.)
Adam’s claim is similar to a remark made recently by Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo. In a post otherwise defending blogging against criticism by certain print snobs, Marshall suggests that “blogging is an ephemeral form of writing. It’s written quickly, usually forgotten quickly. It doesn’t lend itself to that sort of rigorous writing and rewriting which is often the way you discover your ideas in your own mind.” But even if some bloggers in practice regard their posts as something to be “written quickly,” or even if the blogsphere in general is perceived to be crammed with such posts, that doesn’t mean blog writing must be practiced in this way. Is there really anything inherent in the way words appear in cyberspace as opposed to the way they appear on a piece of paper that prevents it from being a medium for “that sort of rigorous writing and rewriting which is often the way you discover your ideas in your own mind”? Isn’t “rigor” of this kind a product of the kind of effort being put forth by the writer rather than a function of the form? (And on the question of discovering ideas, see this post by Dorothy W at Of Books and Bicycles, in which she affirms that blogging “about what I think makes me have better thoughts.")
In a recent essay at Bad Subjects, Jodi Dean makes a point about the deliberative potential of blogs that one would think Adam Kotsko might appreciate:
. . .The fast pace of networked communication is a prominent meme. Opinions, image, and information are said to circulate rapidly through the blogosphere, like some kind of digital ebola or influenza. For most, this rapidity is a problem, or an excuse. It explains a lack of reflection, the need to respond immediately.
But theory blogs aren’t like this. A discussion on theory blogs might spread over half a dozen or more blogs over the course of weeks, like some kind of long running seminar. So, I post something about solidarity on I Cite, picking up or reiterating themes already in play on the Weblog and Posthegemony. The blog Before the Law posts a critical rejoinder, countered from different directions in multiple posts by various authors at Long Sunday and again at the Weblog. Sometimes, someone will accumulate the links and post a general guide to the conversation (the blogger from Theoria does this from time to time). Rather than a fast paced media sphere, this exchange is like a slow seminar, focusing on one narrow question that arises on its own, and is addressed over a longer period of time, giving those who engage it opportunity to read and reflect.
In other words, at his own blog and in his contributions to others, Adam has himself exemplified a kind of blog discourse and a kind of blog protocol that, while not substituting for those of academe, certainly have every claim to being taken seriously and not just dismissed as “talk,” an offhand way of passing one’s free time. Further, its’ not just “theory blogs” that foster the kind of discussion Jodi Dean describes. Plenty of literary weblogs are focused on longer posts that are frequently part of cross-blog debates that at their best have a seminar-like feel without being pompous. (See, for example, this recent set of posts on Muriel Spark.) A similar desire to go beyond current book news and engage in more substantive commentary about current fiction underlies the Litblog Co-op‘s week-long discussions of selected small-press books and less-recognized writers. A number of film blogs have been participating in “blogathons” on specified topics, which generally result in lively and informative mini-essays. (A guide to the latest of these blogathons can be found here.) Whatever this kind of blog discourse may lack in conventional “rigor” is certainly balanced out by its immediacy and its enthusiasm.
But Adam seems most of all to be disillusioned by the comment threads that develop on some blogs, threads that devolve into “blogfights” and debates that “go nowhere.” This has become a fairly common complaint. The blogosphere provides “scant room for debate and infinite opportunities for fruitless point-scoring: the heady combination of perceived anonymity, gestated responses, random heckling and a notional ‘live audience’ quickly conspire to create a ‘perfect storm’ of perpetual bickering.” According to Alan Jacobs, “On many blogs the comments to a given post are ‘closed’ after a few days—no one is allowed to make further comments—usually because that helps to prevent the accumulation of comment spam, but also because so many threads degenerate into name-calling that the blog administrator has to shoo the belligerents along to another venue. And in any case both the blogger and the commenters have moved along to other posts, other ideas, other conversations.” In general, it would seem, the comment space on weblogs has come to be seen as a place for partisan piling-on, where the converted speak to the converted, or else a kind of intellectual no-man’s land, which the innocent traveller looking for disinterested debate enters at his/her peril.
I have never really understood what seems to me an obsession with comments among some bloggers. On the one hand, attracting comments is seen as a measure of a particular post’s success, even of a blog’s success on the whole. On the other, there is much lamentation when the comment count does indeed begin to climb but the tenor of the thread descends into vituperation and insult. I like receiving thoughtful comments on my own posts as much as anybody, but I don’t consider a post a failure (whatever that might mean) if no comments ensue. Indeed, most of us are by now undoubtedly aware of this fairly consistent phenomenon: A short, trenchant if not particularly thought-out post receives numerous, equally trenchant comments, while a longer, more carefully developed post draws distressingly few. But this is really a problem only if you think “blogging” should be confined to the first kind of post and the second is something else--something that should have instead sought out those “other spaces for other things” that Adam refers to at the end of his post. Although presumably these are the very sort of blog posts that produces the “blogfights” of which Adam disapproves. Why then rule out of court the very possibility that blogs might aspire to something more substantive, even if they don’t make so much use of their comment functions?
Ultimately, what “can be done in a blog post” is whatever it and its author want it to do. For now, most readers of blogs still prefer that a post remain reasonably brief and not otherwise the kind of discourse more profitably read in print. But to me this is mainly a matter of expediency: The portability of print is still an advantage, and that mode of reading that occurs in the proverbial easychair or the library nook does still have its pleasures. And these preferences may change, may already be changing. If readers do become fatigued with the “ephemeral,” rapid-fire style of blogging, is the alternative simply to pronouce blogs deceased because only that style counts as blogging to begin with, or is it to explore the possibilites of a quieter, less anxious style? Perhaps not picking a blogfight is the best way to avoid it. Perhaps the real alternative to the cumbersome processes of academic publishing, which place too little value on novelty and spontaneity, and to the distance from readers imposed by print publication is not the kind of call-and-reponse weblog post that leads to the impulsive quarrels to which Adam Kotsko rightly objects but a style of webwriting that seeks to illuminate rather than provoke, that isn’t defined by the number of comments it invites but remains open to critical dialogue nevertheless. (Because it does occur online, it would inevitably be subject to the commentary-through-linkage that is actually superior to the print conventions of citation and critique, precisely because of its own expediency.) If this is “conversation,” so be it, but ultimately all forms of inquiry have to be conversational in this way, or they’re not very scholarly in the first place.
I feel terribly self-conscious saying this given the topic, but Daniel, what a great post.
Now that there are untold millions of blogs, I don’t think anyone should feel they have to post before the post content is well and truly gestated.
To me, the sky’s the limit. It all depends on what writers and readers end up make of it. Cost-free self-publication is a wonderful thing for some of us. And the gatekeeper function has been transformed entirely, too—no one knows what the new gatekeepers will end up being like. (I really hated the old gatekeeper functions, I can tell you that. The fuckers.)
It might help to forget the word “blog”, which sounds demeaning. (Though it does always remind me of my favorite title-author combo, P.V. Glob’s “The Bog People”. Yes, that’s a real book).
The acceleration in the speed of communication should have some enormous effects. No one waits for the journals to arrive in the mail any more.
I understand that I’m a demographic of one on this question, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading early modern polemic (Luther, Quevedo, Rabelais, et al), and I’ve never understand why people don’t like flame wars. You can always delete people if it gets tiresome.
Luther is late medieval, not early modern—you fool! Of course, if you’d ever read Troeltsch, you wouldn’t have made that elementary error.
I believe that a better title—one more in line with The Valve’s long-standing traditions—would have been “Contra Kotsko.”
As more people respond to my piece, I’m starting to realize that even though it was one of the blog pieces that I spent the most time on, it was still a very early draft. (My account of “what I meant” by that post basically counts as a “strong misreading.") In particular, the point about the paradox of combining an over-emphasis on comments and a genuine distress about flame wars is well-taken.
Adam, you shit-eater (to quote Luther)—Troeltsch is SO last year.