by Rob Horning

21 February 2007


In the new n+1 is an editorial about blog that, judging by the excerpt here, has an interesting point to make about the way our consciousness is saturated with marketing language.

The accident waiting to happen to blog was most visible when they turned their attention to literature and ideas. The hope had been to democratize the intellectual sphere. Freedom of the press is for those who own one. But now all you needed was a laptop and some time on your hands. The idea was especially attractive in light of the consolidation of media holdings and the destruction of intellectual life in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when people began to work longer and harder for less, available public spaces and quiet cafes dried up, and argument in the academies gave way to ‘respect’.

The blog salved this ennui and created nourishing microcommunities. Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blog to post the best they could think and say. The could have posted 5,000-word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, on-line, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blog reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested.

Encouraged by the “need for speed” and the way it privileges spontaneity, blog reveals that our spontaneous thoughts are often not windows into our soul but regurgitations of convenient prefab word chunks we have assimilated from our culture, in which marketing hype and the pseudoreasoning and posturing of advertising is ubiquitous. But that’s not blog as a medium’s fault and not characteristic of the many, many highly interesting blog out there providing articulate amateur art criticism, free expert news analysis, opinion, advice, reading suggestions and primers in virtually any subject. The extent of blog is far too vast to be surveyed and dismissed as glibly as this editorial appears to (“Criticism as an art didn’t survive”?!?!), which leaves the writer seeming a bit reactionary. The writer seems affronted by the mass of limp and unoriginal opinion-mongering out there as though it were sullying the public sphere and stifling the true voices of genius we should all be listening to. The writer condemns the fact that blog is “not often enough” up to her high standards—well, how much would be enough to vindicate the medium? (Also, how many fewer crappy pseudoacademic journals would have to exist for the generally excellent n+1 not to be tarred with their mediocrity?) It seems to me that the second-hand jargon of lit crit in academic writing is often more stultifying, “unconsidered” and prohibitive than blog shorthand. Often blog are able to take theoretical ideas an apply them to pressing issues in a lang general-interest readers can understand, thus giving them wider currency and efficacy. Isn’t this preferable to the most likely self-indulgent 5,000 word critique of one’s favorite book?

Perhaps the objection is that the “microcommunities” online have disintegrated the public sphere altogether. But is a public sphere that depends on the market to constrain it to a manageable shape worth having in a putative democracy, or does such a public sphere (e.g., one dictated from the top down by mass media controlled by a few players, as things were in the early days of TV and social critics fretted about enforced conformity) nullify more localized discourse communities (e.g. a MySpace page) that many people would find more personally rewarding (if not uniformly mind-expanding)?

Implicit in the n+1 writer’s argument is a belief that only writers who undergo the rigors of print publication deserve recognition, should be allowed in the public sphere. Lurking behind that also is a rote championing of originality, which is not all that different from the marketing world’s ceaseless celebration of novelty for its own sake. Would n+1 want would-be blog to have to pass some sort of licensing test that would permit them to speak in public and share their opinions? Would they want, say, their editors to be responsible for everything the public is allowed to see, so our brains won’t be damaged by unwitting stenography? The upshot of n+1‘s complaint seems to be this: “This sucks. All these damn blog are out there spewing so many of their trivial, second-rate opinions that no one is paying attention to our own.”

Blogs remove the filtering mechanisms of the market, which allow all that sort of junk the n+1 writer mentions to freely circulate, but that doesn’t mean anyone needs to waste their time reading it. It’s pretty easy to avoid bad blog (you could click away right now, for instance). But free of the market, a new form of writing is free to evolve, as CR at Long Sunday notes in the comments of this post:

One thing that’s interesting about blogging, in this day and age especially, is the relative absence of need to satisfy market demand, and the effect of this fact upon the form of the writing. I don’t blog under my own name. Unlike my “real work,” I don’t expect any financial compensation (direct or indirect) from this work. And that is one of the leading causes, I think, of the differences between the shape of my writing here and over there in the real world.

Absent market pressures, blogging seems sensitive instead to different kinds of pressure—that of attracting and keeping an audience in a market with infinitely elastic supply. One approach is to adopt au courant superficialities that the n+1 writer deplores. This slangy slackness is often a product of an another audience-attracting gambit, which is to post often (with a not fully reasoned reaction to the chosen topic and in whatever language is already at hand)—this is where the “need for speed” derives from, a desire on the blogger’s part to feel an exchange going on with an audience, to procure recognition on a steady basis. The more you post, the more you have a chance of seeing how readers are responding (if they respond at all) and that exchange is at the heart of the form, once the money aspect is removed. (It may be that the money one can earn by writing is a flawed proxy for this kind of recognition; those who write for money become hacks when they confuse the two.) What may be bothering n+1 so much is that attention can be secured by adopting the language and approach of advertising and not necessarily by having smart and interesting things to share. This may have an incantatory effect, making ad gibberish seem even more powerful and oppressive, making intellectual conversation seem even more beside the point culturally. What’s left, then, if you accept that logic? A Baudrillardian fatal strategy of silence?

Incidentally, a search for “Baudrillardian fatal strategy of silence” yields this quote from his In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities

The mass absorbs all the social energy, but no longer refracts it. It absorbs every sign and every meaning, but no longer reflects them… it never participates. It is a good conductor of information, but of any information. It is without truth and without reason. It is without conscience and without unconscious. Everybody questions it, but never as silence, always to make it speak. This silence is unbearable. It is the simulation chamber of the social.

Is this an apt description of the blogosphere as a totality?

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