Whether the prognosis of an actual change in reality, as promised by the mantras, is warranted by the invocation of many speakers speaking of community, is still to be determined. Are we at the beginning of a new mode of genuine community, or do we — "we" — share an aberrant dream — produced like nationhood as an uncanny side-effect in the mass — of a new wrinkle in technology?
First, Some Lame Excuses
I've recently had the honor of being invited to contribute my thoughts about blogging to Reconstruction, a journal of contemporary studies. I'll begin by making a lame excuse — I haven't been blogging much lately since I've had so little time for it. But I very much want to contribute, not because I consider myself a great thinker about this issue, but for the more selfish reason that I would love to be included in what I expect will be such interesting company.
Of course I have thought about this question before, and I appreciate the excuse to address it. So, to continue making my lame excuses, I only wish I had more time to adequately put my thoughts into something more lofty and coherent rather than loosely hang them from a circuitous thread. But such is blogging when it's not a fulltime avocation.
In fact, I thought about blogging a great deal when I first started. One of my first major forays into blogging was going to be a fourteen part series that would address its potentialities for creating new communities. The main thrust of my exploration was instigated by this line of thought from Hakim Bey:
The apparatus of Control—the "State"—must (or so we must assume) continue to deliquesce and petrify simultaneously, must progress on its present course in which hysterical rigidity comes more and more to mask a vacuity, an abyss of power. As power "disappears," our will to power must be disappearance.Even though I had written almost 120 pages of material I only posted the first two parts (plus a prelude). I still intend to finish it someday. But since that day is distant I will rob from myself some of those past thoughts and give them some air now. Time and space, however, preclude me from fully discussing my conclusions in any great detail, so this will only serve as a kind of preview.
Plus I have had occassion to expand my thoughts, as well as reflect on other aspects of blogging, specifically the personal.
Everyone A Montaigne
And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.
—Michel de Montaigne, To The Reader
[Note: all Montaigne excerpts from M. A. Screech's translation.]
When one blogs one is writing for an intended audience. Michel de Montaigne, a Rennaissance statesman, wrote his enormously influential "assays" for his friends and family as a rembrance to them of the man he sought to understand — ie, himself. It was intended as a sincere and genuine gift for his loved ones wherein they could share his journey of self-discovery, and thus get to know his inner self as he himself sought to know it.
Montaigne was a man who took Socrates famous dictum to "Know Thyself" to heart. In his introduction to the complete works of Montaigne, the translator says of Montaigne's Essays that they are
'tentative attempts' to 'assay' the value of himself, his nature, his habits and of his own opinions and those of others — a hunt for truth, personality and a knowledge of humanity through an exploration of his own reactions to his reading, his travels, his public and his private experience in peace and in Civil War, in health and in sickness. The Essays are not a diary but are of 'one substance' with their author: 'I am myself the matter of my book.'
As the blurb to the books says, "in studying himself he could discover the nature of mankind." Montaigne could, in fact, be considered the first blogger. In his essay "On Books", for instance, he addresses the issue of hyperlinking, as he knew it:
So I guarantee you nothing for certain, except my making known what point I have so far reached in my knowledge of it. Do not linger over the matter but over my fashioning of it. Where my borrowings are concerned, see whether I have been able to select something which improves my theme: I get others to say what I cannot put so well myself, sometimes because of the weakness of my language and sometimes because of the weakness of my intellect. I do not count my borrowings: I weigh them; if I had wanted them valued for their number I would have burdened myself with twice as many. [II: 10: On Books]
His essays are explorations or discussions of whatever strikes his fancy, from the ridiculous to the sublime:
- On Thumbs:
"Some general or other (I cannot remember his name) cut off the thumb of his defeated enemies after winning a naval engagement so as to deprive them of the means of fighting and of pulling on the oar."
- On The Custom of Wearing Clothing:
"If we had been endowed at birth with undergarments and trousers there can be no doubt that Nature would have armed those parts of us which remained exposed to the violence of the seasons with a thicker skin, as she has done for our fingertips and the soles of our feet."
- On Cruelty:
"Among the vices, both by nature and judgement I have a cruel hatred of cruelty, as the ultimate vice of them all. But I am so soft that I cannot even see anyone lop the head off a chicken without displeasure, and cannot bear to hear a hare squealing when my hounds get their teeth into it, even though I enjoy the hunt enormously."
- On Fear:
"And many people, unable to withstand the stabbing pains of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves or jumped to their deaths, showing us that fear is even more importunate and unbearable than death."
The pursuit to know oneself is the pursuit to know others; the attempt to understand one's life is to attempt to understand life itself. And we have the extraordinary and unique privilege through blogging to witness countless people attempt this pursuit.
And yet it's all too easy to decry the painfully prosaic, diary-like aspect of most blogs. Many could come away from hours of blog surfing and feel a sense of sadness at the pedestrian, often barely articulate attempts of the majority of bloggers who often don't know what to say, nor how to say it. Nick Lewis, in a beautiful and articulate post about the trials of being a progressive blogger, captures this perception, succinctly stating in passing the simple essence of blogging as an authorial medium [ital mine], and his personal wish as a blogger:
A lot has been said about bloggers, and the blogosphere; some call it a fad, others call it a revolution — I think both positions start from the wrong place. A blogger is nothing more than a person who writes their thoughts for others to read. Period. To speak of bloggers or blogs as a whole is as foolish as speaking of books and authors as a whole. One can go no farther than saying, "a book is a place for words, which are written by an author, and read by a reader." Beyond that, one can only speculate that the right collection of words might have a profound effect on history.
In general, the blogosphere is a dark place; its catacombs are full of the mindless, insane, perverted, and mean spirited bloggers who hide in shadows. Its walls are clad with pictures pornography, death, and allegedly humorous photos, which are unsophisticated to say the least. In otherwords, it is generally as deluded, schizophrenic, and trashy as the real world.
I imagine this blog as a lone candle in a long dark passage. The fellowship of pundits, its readers, and myself sit around the single flame, laughing, debating, passing along knowledge, or just telling the tale of a recent journey into the information labyrinth. Anyhow, this train of thought has come to natural stopping place. For the record, I have no regrets about this post's abrupt conclusion.
But rather than a dark place, I find the very activity of "writing thoughts for others to read", that Nick so easily dismisses, to be pregnant with potential, something innately positive and life affirming. Though the thoughts he encounters may be dark or jejune, the medium itself demands an act of articulation, and that is a positive act in which growth can occur.
The very act of articulating a thought, of finding concrete words to express onself, gives shape to the inchoate, amorphous swirl of our notions, sensations and impressions. Writing is a creative process, a feedback loop like any other creative act, one that gives shape to the product it is in the very act of creating. Even trying to convey something as simple as "my soup is hot" or "terrorists suck" gives form and meaning in an attempt to make sense of one's world, to come to an understanding of it, and convey that understanding to others.
And that's the key. The wish to convey one's understanding of the world to others asserts one's existence. That most blogs are nothing more than online journals is decisive, for the intent is not to communicate one's thoughts to oneself, but are, rather, intentioned attempts to share oneself with others, and is, thus, necessarily a way to discover or create community, to find someone who will witness one's thoughts, one's experience. It is a call that says "I am living, and this is what I see, what I feel, what I think" — whether or not that call is answered. The desire to blog is a testament to our innate wish to connect with others: it is tossing out a line into the ether, one that asserts our existence through our voice, a voice that wants to be heard; or, put another way, they are messages in a bottle tossed into the ocean that is the blogosphere, messages which have the potential of finding a sympathetic reader who understands; and thus a connection is made, a community is formed.
The understandable complaints about the general mediocrity or vapidity of blogs misses the point. Bloggers wish to connect, to assert their unique take on the world; and, in so doing, can find others who understand them. And so communities are formed amongst various genera, species, and families of bloggers who recognize their own kind amidst the vast forest of voices, following blogroll pheromones to find their rightful clan — for indeed blogrolls are demographic pheromones that help steer people to others who might share one's interests... and thus is a community extended.
My reasons for blogging are selfish. I enjoy learning — particularly, like Montaigne, about myself: I am drawn to discover the reasons for my thinking. In writing, in struggling to make concrete those swirling, inchoate thoughts, I discover what I think. The act of writing, of finding ways to articulate my thoughts, is simultaneously the act of learning how to think, and what one thinks.
Blogging is an extraordinary venue in which to share this process of discovery: unlike a diary, in sharing my thoughts in such an unimaginably public forum — one theorectically accessible to the entire world in an instant — I feel a sense of responsibility to be as honest and articulate as I can: I figure that by sharing my search for truth with others, others might be interested in what I find. And it seems that others do, in fact, appreciate joining me on my journey: I have been deeply gratified on several occassions to learn from readers that my writing has changed their life, for it challenged them to think for themselves, to make their own connections. But I don't claim to have an inside track on the truth — the process of discovering the truth is what's important. In this sense I join Nick in trying to be a light in the darkess: my goal as a blogger is to shine a light on a path, not on a destination. If I have an aim as a blogger it is to fire neurons in others the way they ignite in myself as I try to understand what's going on, whether in my own life, or in the world in which I find myself. And, likewise, I have encountered bloggers who have peformed such a function for me.
And so blogs are, in a sense, public attempts to "know thyself", for since every person is a microcosm of the universe, to know oneself is to know the world. Diaries and journals are tools for talking to oneself in private, and are thus tools for communing with oneself. A blog, on the other hand, has an intended audience outside oneself — its purpose is inherently to communicate, to express. The intended audience necessarily alters the message, for it's reaching out to others. Bloggers are, in effect, communally sharing in Socrate's assertion that the "unexamined life is not worth living", for all blogs are, at some level, attempts to examine one's life and thoughts by sharing it with others, whether or not a given blogger possesses the tools of articulation. Indeed, the desire to blog will often compel one towards greater feats of articulation, which means increased literacy, which means an increased aptitude for cerebration.
And this is perhaps the greatest and most powerful thing about blogging: it is inherently egalitarian and democratizing: we are all sharing with each other our experience. There are no official gatekeepers to hamper the consumption of thought. Everyone has the freedom to search for their own truth while having the same freedom to express it. We can experience any blogger's pursuit of articulation directly from author to audience unmediated by the imprimatur of economic and political gatekeepers of "truth". It is truly a marketplace of ideas in the purest sense, for we are privy to a bewildering mosaic of viewpoints from which we can grow our own.
The Midas/Schopenhauer Curse
Anything worth writing is written only by those who write solely for the sake of the subject. What an inestimable boon it would be if in all branches of literature there existed only a few admirable books! But we can never come to this as long as fees and cash are to be earned. For it is as though a curse lay on the money since every author degenerates as soon as he writes in any way for the sake of profit. The most excellent works of great men are all from the time when they still had to write for nothing, or for very little money.
—Schopenhauer, On Authorship and Style
Of course Mammon can't leave well enough alone. Bloggers are more and more swayed by the promise of lucre and thus become seduced by the promise to make a "living" from it, thus automatically falling into Schopenhauer's curse. Like the profusion of writers on Grub Street or in Enlightenment France, bloggers are drawn to the lure of making a living from their blog, and will dilute and alter their articulation to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in exchange for whatever "living" they derive from doing so.
Billmon, a famous blogger, in a famous op-ed a couple of years ago, eulogized about the death of blogging, that "blogging is already being domesticated by its success". Of course this was inevitable: The Blob that is corporate capitalism consumes all for its own fiscal ends, taming the beast then selling it for profit. True freedom, a freedom that is uncensored, unconstained, triumphant and messy, is, perhaps, the greatest threat to the the powers-that-be; so, when something is bought and paid for, it is, by definition, no longer free.
Billmon understands this very well: "Bloggers aren't the first, and won't be the last, rebellious critics to try to storm the castle, only to be invited to come inside and make themselves at home." It's a commonplace that the best way to tame something is to co-opt it, to throw money at it and claim it as your own. Remember how Rock'n'Roll was a threat? Or the Hippies? Even blue-jeans? Simply re-brand it as a lifestyle choice, — "Everyone a Rebel" — market it and sell it, complete with its own line of clothes and magazines, then sell the fantasy: "You too can get rich and famous blogging!"
But the medium itself, in this case, cannot be so easily contained. It is inherently decentralized, inherently democratic, inherently, in Deleuzian nomenclature, "rhizomatic". That's why there is such a push to bring it under control. There is a real fear amongst the PTB [Powers-That-Be] of the democratic explosion of voices comparable to the effect of mass literacy that occurred after Gutenberg's movable type made books accessible to the masses. It was only a matter of generations before The Rennaissance and, later, The Enlightenment, overturned traditional social structures as more and more people had the opportunity to learn to think for themselves with the availability of books and the concomitant growth in literacy. The PTB feels the threat, and has a plan:
Given this emerging marketing model, the US broadband infrastructure may well become one giant "brandwashing" machine. The most powerful communications system ever developed by humans is increasingly being put in the service of selling, commercialization and commodification. And it will lead to an inherently conservative and narcissistic political culture, in which the interests of the self and the consumption of products are the primary, most visible, media messages. And unless we begin to challenge it now, the emerging digital culture will seriously challenge our ability to effectively communicate, inform and organize.
The forces of Capital understand Schopenhauer's curse, and hope to convert the free pursuit of communal articulation into another contest of individualism where "professional" bloggers sell themselves as another consummable where they compete for status, money, and, particularly, attention.
Speaking of attention, Tom Matrullo points us to this cogent analysis from Ali Mejias where the nature of the technology itself dovetails with this co-opting individuation to create an "attention economy", wherein blogging is commodified, thus converting it from a tool for community into a "mass" that competes for "attention capital":
Masses are not sites of rich social interaction. Masses foster an alienated form of individualism, making it difficult for people to come together meaningfully. Because of their large numbers, masses may give the appearance of robust communities, but a closer look reveals that people feel irreparably alone in a mass.
Technocracies engender masses by commodifying the interactions between people. The blogosphere is a perfect example of how interaction has been commodified and reduced to the exchange of attention. In an attention economy, attention is capital, and bloggers with (bigger) audiences can capitalize on that attention — quite literally, if they are using things like Google ads. But a blogger with lots of readers can be said to have rich social interactions with them in the same impoverished sense that a person in MySpace with lots of contacts can be said to have many good friends. In fact, I would suggest that the more attention capital is accrued, the less opportunities for meaningful social interaction are engendered, and the more entrenched one's position in a mass becomes.
And so this decentralized democratic wonderland where people share their thoughts in a public space becomes just another marketplace where attention itself becomes fetishized, a global shopping mall of ideas where you can hang out with your clan while shopping for thoughts from popular bloggers fashioning their articulation for consumption. And so Midas's curse becomes Schopenhauer's too, transforming the organic growth of communal articulation into an inert word-spinning competition for attention.
Is The Virtual Really Virtual?
...the main public space of our time is that of consumption; hence the political is subjected to its logic and has come to be assessed by the criterion of the image.
It seems that the imaginary and the political have once again been reconciled, but under the sign of the marketplace and through active integration into its regulatory practices. Democracy thus loses its rationality. Images displace arguments. Debates are turned into games. The show never stops. All games become interchangeable; the political stage tends to be no more than one among others. So much so that its legitimate claim to be something else loses all validity. Nevertheless, the general unease generated today by that situation has one positive implication: citizens have not allowed themselves to be identified with consumers, the political has remained the specific form of expression of the community as such, and ethical choices cannot be reduced to functional regulations.
...No longer the place where humans appear in and as persons one to the other, what remains of the public realm is...now further mediated by technologies of communication. While permitting a vastly expanded audience, these also appear to reduce the legitimacy of what is communicated. They dramatically change the role that vision plays. To the degree that the possibility of legitimate public space diminishes, it may encourage the understanding that political life is, in the end, only a matter of the matrix of the clash of private interests, "that my share in no way involves my life in common with that of an other."
—Hénaff and Strong Public Space and Democracy
It seems the early proponents of the net as a tool of liberation are all profoundly disappointed by its inability to achieve what was hoped would be its awesome potential for new community and social justice. Hakim Bey, in his Preface to AK Press's latest reprint of TAZ, here employs Ali Mejias's notion of this "attention economy" to express his disappointment:
What's left of the Left now seems to inhabit a ghostworld where a few thousand "hits" pass for political action and "virtual community" takes the place of human presence. The Web has become a perfect mirror for Global Capital: borderless, triumphalist, evanescent, aesthetically bankrupt, monocultural, violent — a force for atomization and isolation, for the disappearance of knowledge, of sexuality, and of all the subtle senses.
The TAZ must exist in geographical odorous tactile tasty physical space (ranging in size from, say, a double bed to a large city) — otherwise it's no more than a blueprint or a dream. Utopian dreams have value as critical tools and heuristic devices, but there's no substitute for lived life, real presence, adventure, risk, love. If you make media the center of life then you will lead a mediated life — but the TAZ wants to be immediate or else nothing.
[Note: TAZ = Temporary Autonomous Zone. Required Reading.]
This captures perfectly the dilemma bloggers face, for what we seek ("we", in this case, being those bloggers who seek it) is a new structure of "everyday life" — and such a life occurs offline. So long as we are all disembodied communicating minds we can rejoice in our shared experience and feeling of community, but until we see changes in how we live our daily life we remain zombie servants to Wealth Bondage.
How do we move between the virtual and bio-regional dimension? (One of the challenges we face is creating our own vocabularies, our own "viral" words. If our blogging community occurs in the virtual realm, what do we call the realm in which we live in the sensory plena? I would propose "bio-regional", or bior, to convey the sensory world in which we live, to locate us properly in space and time. "Real" and "objective" cannot be used in contradistinction with the virtual realm, since the virtual realm is very "real" and "objective" to us.)
For one thing, blogging is not a means to an end. It is an end to itself, one where the promise of social change is ever-present because of the nature of the technology itself. Those who decry the blog as already lost are romanticizing its possibilities for instant social change. "It takes a long time for change to happen quickly," someone once sagaciously observed.
Plus, blogging cannot be compared to passive forms of literary sharing: blogging and the web provide users with previously unimaginable means of interactive immediacy. For one sublime example: millions of people around the world participated on February 15, 2003 in a global protest against a stupid and criminal war before it occurred!
Of course this unprecedented, phenomenal historical event was dismissed as a "focus group" by insane vorocrats, but that's because such a momentous event had to be minimized and ignored — it's power was too great to acknowledge. That's why you don't read or hear much about it — the PTB don't want you to reflect on it. That's because it scares them. In my opinion, this worldwide protest is perhaps the most significant event in modern history: the world was united at a grassroots level, opposed to the commission of an atrocity before it occurred; millions sought to prevent a gross injustice from happening; millions refused to swallow the lies promulgated by the official organs of "truth", instead seeking truth on their own via the web; millions united across space and time, across language and cultural divides, to band together in one common cause to stop a war! Is that not reason enough to extol the awesome potential of the web in general, and blogging specifically, as a tool capable of tremendous social effects? As Hénaff and Strong remind us:
...the achievement of democracy cannot be separated from development of shared information and of free access to this information. Without this, public debate is not possible.
Blogging is just that. No matter how bland the majority of blogs may be, no matter how much blogging becomes distorted by an "attention economy", the truth still obtains that bloggers have the means to share and access whatever information they wish. It is, in a very real sense, the ultimate tool of democratization, and its potential ought not be minimized by those who proleptically predict its demise.
And the truth is, we have already formed a community. The next level is to create bonds of giving in the real world. What's after that? To find ways to create our own local TAZs, whether as Tongs, speakeasies, raves, or ecovillages. Blogging — and, by extension, the web itself — can be used as a means for gathering together its users not just to share thoughts, but to share two vital and practical means of freedom: to provide rapid dissemination of the means of real-world avenues of communal disappearance; and to enable a true and meaningful gift-economy. What many fail to realize is the extent to which some sectors of our society have already successfully disappeared: right-wing christians, for example, have done a remarkable job of forming their own economic, educational and support structures. They are hiding in plain sight, and in great numbers.
Our goal should not be social change — that is too large, too daunting, and ultimately defeating. Our goal should be one of personal freedom communally shared. None of us can do it alone; nor can we expect to foment radical social and economic change. What is in our power is to create the means whereby those who share a vision of freedom and social justice and environmental responsibility brainstorm together in ways in which we can disappear — in a practical sense — to form our own social economies, first as TAZs, next as living communities. Things such as Burning Man, because they are large, cannot disappear, and thus can be easily appropriated as commercial spectacle. We must embrace disappearance; and blogging, in being so public, can yet paradoxically help us to gather together to hide in plain site, first virtually, then corporeally. Bloggers don't need official sanction to form new communities: community happens when people decide to join together in common fellowship, for whatever reason.
And lest anyone think that virtual community is a new phenomenon, and one that does not, or cannot, have significant real-world ramifications, I'll conclude with this excerpt from Hénaff and Strong's excellent book:
Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centures in Europe, the community of scientists and scholars constituted itself into a virtual "republic of letters." They communicated by mail, in publications, or through an intermediary of "scholars" who wandered from city to city and ensured an oral transmission of information... In England, the informal community even received the name of "invisible college." It was a community that owed its entire existence to the desire for intellectual communication, to the certainty of sharing common values and the necessity of promulgating a collective project for knowledge and liberty. This was truly a virtual public space...
...All the world knew that the "Republic of Letters" referred to a cultivated community of knowledge taken as a whole, a sort of autonomous intellectual "International." In 1752, Voltaire expressed its reality like this: "One has seen a literary republic establish itself imperceptibly all over Europe, despite wars and religion." In 1729, a disciple of Bayle had already given the best definition, one that anticipates Rousseau's definition of a just polity: "It is a state that extends in all states, a republic where each member, in perfect independence, recognizes only the law as that he himself prescribes to himself." The citizens of this "Republic" never found themselves in one place, never organized a convention. But they all recognized a certain tone or style, an ethic to share knowledge, a will to political emancipation. The community was all the more virtual for the fact that the means of communication were very limited.
With the idea of "virtual," we are thus dealing with a very old story. If, however, today we take particular notice of these invisible communities, it is because technologies manage to make actual these relations that until now remained purely virtual. What is new is not the network of relations but the possibility of making them active, or reinforcing them, of extending them by the tools of communication and representation. What materializes with and as the Internet is, first of all, existing institutions and communities of exchange that were waiting for a means to become actual. The Internet makes the real the virtual, not the reverse.
—Hénaff and Strong, Public Space and Democracy
Bloggers, in our own way, have a chance to start living as we wish. We don't ask permission, we don't wait for someone to come along and make the world better — we just do it. And we do it quietly, and we do it together.
The best don't make a lot of noise, but I have nevertheless managed to ferret out and accumulate more than two hundred bookmarks of blogs written by people who are having an impact on the world. Like you, they are holding up candles. The more people with a grip on the rational who start blogging, the bigger the network of common sense grows.
It's an art form, it's a mutual aid network at times, it's a spiffy banana split and it's very worthwhile.
— a comment by Harry