An exchange about blogging a couple weeks ago on the Humanist listserv
got under my skin, and is still sort of itching me. It's a pretty short exchange, so I'll reproduce it in its entirety. I'll leave out the names because I don't want to make this to be construed as a personal attack or a gripe with anyone in particular. Rather, I think this touches on a rather prevalent attitude towards bloggers and blogging. The exchange (edited to show the sequence of comments):
Date: Sat, 08 Jan 2005 10:19:03 +0000
Subject: Re: 18.467 blogging Humanist
I try to avoid all blogs whenever possible
Date: Sun, 09 Jan 2005 09:13:05 +0000
Subject: Re: 18.472 blogging Humanist
A textbook case of media essentialism. By this logic I wouldn't read any books because some are worthless or trivial.
Anyone who doubts the import of blogging should check in with Dan Rather.
Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2005 07:45:53 +0000
Subject: Re: 18.477 blogging
People have referred me to blog after blog, and I find them self-serving, unstructured, and boring. Sorry. After a year or so you tend to quit trying. This doesn't seem to be the case with books.
The immediate context of the initial comment was a discussion of the merits of moving Humanist from listserv to a blog-like format, and I think the initial poster meant that if such a move were made, s/he would be unlikely to continue participating. Fair enough. For what it's worth, I'd just as soon see Humanist stay a list rather than a blog, too. But what nags at me is the assertion (implied in the first post and made explicit in the second) that blogs are not fit places for serious scholarly discussion. I have posted my own response. Picking up after the last post above:
All I can say is that people have referred you to the wrong blogs. I will grant the "unstructured" label, but I would say that it is one of the attractions of blogging (especially for the bloggers themselves) that one is free from the imperative to be unified, focused, and rigorously structured in the manner of, for example, a scholarly journal article. One could go further and argue that the absence of explicit structure allows for the discernment of emergent structure. Few, if any, blogs are completely random; they reflect the interests, however disparate, of the author, that is, the 'structure' of the author's thought. In addition, many blogs employ some sort of categorizing function that separates the possibly chaotic flow of the main blog into different "channels" if you will, which might be read as more coherent blogs in their own right.
As for self-serving and boring, no doubt many blogs deserve one or both of those epithets (the same could be said for books, films, and popular music). But there are a good number that do not. Jill Walker <http://huminf.uib.no/~jill/>, Mark Bernstein <http://markbernstein.org/>, Matthew Kirschenbaum <http://www.otal.umd.edu/~mgk/blog/>, and Adrian Miles <http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vog/vlog/>, to name a few from my personal "essentials" list, are serious, I dare say, important scholars/researchers in the overlapping fields of hypertext, digital media and electronic textuality, and I have found their blogs to be significant stimuli for my own thoughts on those subjects. Excellence in blogging is by no means restricted to new media theorists, though: Jeff Angus's Management by Baseball <http://cmdr-scott.blogspot.com/> provides insightful commentary on management and corporate culture through the lens of current events in baseball; Michael Feldman's Dowbrigade News <http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/dowbrigade/> provides satiric commentary on news and politics; currently in hibernation, during the run-up to the presidential election Andrew Tanenbaum's Electoral Vote Predictor <http://www.electoral-vote.com/> converted aggregated polling data into a daily electoral map, and in the process offered much insight into polling methodologies and the statistical techniques that go into the polling process; the now-defunct Invisible Adjunct <http://invisibleadjunct.com/> offered rigorous yet also humane critique of the academic labor system; and if nothing else, there is a Pepys' Diary <http://www.pepysdiary.com/>, a day-by-day transcription of Samuel Pepys's diaries into blog format (as of today, it has reached January 27, 1661/62).
The above are personal, subjective picks of blogs I find interesting enough to come back to day after day. Others may well find some or all of these candidates less than compelling. But I hope that in the range of examples offered, one can at least see a refutation of the popular complaint that blogs are hopelessly self-absorbed ramblings of no interest to anyone beyond the author and perhaps his or her immediate friends or family. There is a great deal of serious, intelligent, creative, and informative writing being done by bloggers, and I think that body of work deserves something more than a blanket dismissal.
What I did not say in my response because I lacked the references at the time is that the original poster's resistance to blogs almost exactly echoes Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), in which he seemingly bases a wholesale dismissal of the idea of hypertext literature on a single unsatisfying reading of Stuart Mouthrop's Victory Garden. Mark Bernstein has, I think definitively, exposed the fallacy of Birkert's critique in the 1997 hyper-essay "Chasing our Tails
," concluding finally that
Little recent writing about hypertext is based on careful observation of actual hypertext.
Instead, critics ventilate their fears and their ambitions . They fear the young, or the government, or Disney, or bad taste. They fear their mortality, the loss of power and memory, the political triumph of their rivals. They fear themselves.
They fear error, and so repeat the errors of the past.
I suspect this repetition of error is taking place again when it come to blogging. Any number of opinions have been spouted about what blogs can and cannot do, what they might or might not be worth, but how many of these punditries have involved "careful observation" of one or several blogs? When do we get beyond simple listing of personal preferences and subjective responses (as I myself resorted to above) to an informed critical discussion of a body of writing?
And finally, just because I can't think where else to fit this in, the apparently inaugural post of Mark Dery's Shovelware is a refreshing tirade in answer to the question "why blog?" that rips through all the received wisdom and media hype to conclude
The best blogging, then, isn’t yet another hairy-eyed jeremiad from some Angry White Guy or another somber thumbsucker about the Deeper Meaning of Whatever....
Some of my favorite blogs reclaim the radical promise inherent in the notion of an online journal, letting casual passersby eavesdrop on a stranger’s innermost thoughts, see the world through another mind’s eye....
Reading blogs like [these] is the intellectual equivalent of Beaumont’s experiments in gastric physiology, observing digestion through a hole in the stomach of a wounded soldier.
It’s a beautiful thing.
And with that image, boys and girls, I bid you good night.
This post was first published Monday, 31 Jan 2005, 1:52 AM
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