Why read blogs?

by Yule Heibel on November 22, 2004

Frank Paynter sent around an email to ask, “why do you blog?” It wasn’t a personal question since his query went to a number of people, but all the same I didn’t like being asked just now. Because I often find so little satisfaction in using this format, I am forever on the verge of quitting blogging. I like writing, I like “thinking out loud” (such as it is), I like making a bricolage-type portrait of my quirky interests, but there are too many days when I feel that there’s nothing I want from “the community,” and since I don’t feel part of a blogging community, I would prefer not to be considered a blogger at all. (After all, it was Frank who wrote, “There are half a dozen men in Canada whose blogs I read, whose writing interests me,” and when I read that, I sensed a “vision” of community being illuminated …which wasn’t mine.) I am not keeping a web-log because of some particular care I have about the web. I love the fact that I can get access to information at fantabulous speed through the internet, I love that almost all of it is free, and I love that it can keep me connected to news (and gossip) from around the world.

But I don’t web-log because I love the web. I don’t understand much of the technology that web-based tinkering and creation depends on, just as I don’t understand car engines. I do drive, however; avidly in fact. But my car — and the web — isn’t a fetish in my world: I do not love my car. I am intrigued by the challenge to property rights that information technology introduces to our collective actions here, but that’s still not enough to build a community as far as I’m concerned. Furthermore, if someone paid me to write articles in either this medium or in another, I would stop web-logging. All I really care about, when push comes to shove, is writing. I write on the web simply because it’s free and it’s easier than finding someone who’ll pay me to write somewhere else (though I wouldn’t mind the latter at all). Nor am I keeping a log, because what I’m doing is not some sort of account. It’s not a diary, it’s not a ship’s log (hello, Star Trek?), it’s not daily. It’s my amateur (as in Latin for “love”) attempt at discourse (or should I say monologue?). Again, if I had a job as a journalist, columnist, editorialist, whatever, I’d happily trade in the “blog.” I don’t love the web (except as a tool to get from A to B, sort of like my car), I don’t love public diaries. This is not a diary, it is not a log. Except for hyperlinks (which I do love — for example, finding something in an old book, quoting from it, but hyperlinking some key words: fantastic!), this what’s-it could be elsewhere, too.

I thought it might be interesting to turn the question around and ask, “why do you read blogs?” Here, too, some key differences between me and real bloggers could be defined. There are two bloggers, both women, whose pages I visit daily, Maria and Shelley. I read them for several reasons, firstly because they have intelligent things to say, secondly how they say those smart things. The postings are sometimes uneven — naturally — but they typically offer a fresh viewing angle, an insight, a comment on something either observed or experienced directly, or on something read elsewhere. It’s food for thought, in other words. Those two I read daily. But that’s it. There are many other women writing online whose writing I would doubtlessly find just as interesting, but I simply don’t have enough time or enough love to shower on more than those two. I have heard, however, that real bloggers read tens if not hundreds of blogs daily. They use various aggregator tools to do this — they are in effect the taxi drivers of the web. What I mean is, I like to drive, but not that much, thank you. I tried reading lots of blogs for a while. It was depressing. I didn’t like getting caught up in so much stuff, I didn’t like being exposed to so much unevenness. Everyone’s uneven lots of the time, but blogs are consistently uneven, and by the law of statistics and probability, you will be reading many more “lows” simply by reading more blogs. In non-blog traditional media, you’re getting a filtered version of writing. Supposedly (in theory), this eliminates the “lows” (at least that’s the claim). If you’re a middle-brow New Yorker magazine type junkie, you’ll get a consistent level of mid- to high-range pieces, and it’s up to you if you want to stuff yourself to the gills with that sort of material. There’s a lot of it out there, so you can easily stuff away for days on end. But I couldn’t do it, not with the New Yorker, not with anything. I’m not into stuffing, I’m quite delicate, and I especially get nauseated by too many little green snotballs or too much buzzing or boing-ing or …anything. And the comments! They’re the worst. I don’t like too much, regardless of what too much is. I find it nauseating that so-called A-listers or other important people try to convince not only themselves but others that their quantitative “popularity” somehow obviates the inferior quality of what they write. Surely I can’t be the only one to notice that a lot of what passes for popular blogging is simply terrible to read, shitty from a (brain-nourishing) quality/ content perspective? Unless, of course, you love the web (the technology) the way some people love car engines, and you’re bedazzled. Those of us who like to drive, but who don’t aspire to become taxi drivers or mechanics, don’t understand why hacks think that following links equates with synthesis or analysis, or why tinkerers think they’re worthwhile writers just because their garage is full of customers.

In my mind, I’m not a customer, except for brief, defined moments of time. And then I leave.

“Why do you read blogs?” I have no idea who reads my online writing, but I know it’s not a community. Most readers seem to come here because of some eccentric google searches: they are anonymous, they stop by once, perhaps they come back again if something stimulated them enough, and then they leave. Unlike one-trick ponies, which can be branded and sold to customers, this is neither a product nor a brand, after all. That’s what makes ideas different from stuff. But you’re the reader — you have to decide if what you want is to stuff yourself or if you want to leave.

I always want to leave, and then I come back occasionally. Last week was nearly entirely made of up leavings; I’m still reluctant to come back now, which is probably why I’m yelling at you. My leaving started by my visiting a wider range of blogs and leaving comments, for example here and here and even here. I started to notice a pattern — disconnecting, leaving, writing myself out of my space and going somewhere else. Last week it sort of peaked, coinciding with real-life encounters that made me nearly crazy. For example, last Thursday I met someone in real time and space who read my blog, a nerve-wracking experience even on a good day. It’s especially unnerving if the person likes the site, which this one did, because it always instills in me an evil sense of hope that perhaps there’s some point to all this. Of course there isn’t, and of course the let-down inevitably follows. My descent was deepened when I spent the entire next day (Friday) cleaning the house, scrubbing toilets so that we could finally have at least one weekend off together, as a family, vs spending all day Saturday arguing over who would do what, and doing it churlishly. I wondered what my former house-cleaner of 12 years employ, who owns a vacation home in Florida, in addition to the house she owns in Hamilton-Wenham Massachusetts, was going to be up to for Thanksgiving.

“Why do I blog?” Perhaps because inbetween cleaning my own toilets these days, I don’t have enough time left over for real work? At least I don’t have a second (vacation) home — its absence at least makes for fewer toilets to clean overall.

By late afternoon, I was done. Done in, actually. Before ferrying the kids to their evening fencing class after an early dinner, I took my dog for a walk along Dallas Road. The sun was setting and it was heartbreakingly beautiful out there. Two very large, beefy men in shorts — they might have been father and son — stopped by one of the doggie fountains with their six chihuahuas and their one lab-type mutt to watch the sun sink over the Strait behind the Sooke Hills. Dozens of dogs frolicking with their after-work humans were tearing the field to shreds, chasing frisbees and balls and each other. But for me it was time to check the clock, punch the slot, get back home, feed the kids, hit the road, get them off to class. The next day, Saturday, there was still a bit of yardwork to do, followed by the obligatory outing with the dog. But finally (due to my Friday labours), a break for the adults: an hour-long outing to a bookstore (not Munro’s this time, but Chapters). I felt, however, that I was well and truly plunging into the dark pit of misanthropy by now because everything felt too surreal in a bad way. I felt this intense allergy to people, which the bookstore only exacerbated since it was too full of stuff. So many books… the displays began to look like the blogosphere. I made the mistake of browsing along the tables on my way to the magazine section (where the husband indulged in paging through magazines devoted to wristwatches — the diversity of fetishism never ceases to amaze me). Book covers that copied the look of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait (Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Queen I think it’s called) dominated the fantasy display aimed at, according to the sign, 8-12 year-olds, and this was followed immediately by a table given over to more topical and political non-fiction. Unfortunately, I casually picked up a book called White Gold, which tells “The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves,” and I made the mistake of opening it. My mind already set on the general perfidy and boundless stupidity of people, I was not happy to see illustrations of various tortures, including the bastinade (which, if you google it, links to sex sites, but it was shown here as putting a man in a kind of stocks and then beating the soles of his feet until they bled). Shut the book immediately, looked up at the magazine shelves in front of me, and saw headlines declaring the importance of certain shades of lipstick.

I felt sick. Moved along the aisles, saw Joyce Carol Oates on the cover of Moment Magazine, looking remarkably like a cousin of Frida’s, or of Tamora’s queen, and paged through an article on Jews in Germany. Something about, among other things, a Purim play in Yiddish being performed by non-Jewish Germans in Germany for lack of German Jews. By now my head was spinning, I wanted to leave.

That’s when I saw an article title on a cover, and knew that it would redeem the day for me: Quitting the Paint Factory; on the virtues of idleness [new link here] by Mark Slouka, in the current (Nov. 2004) issue of Harper’s Magazine. I knew that something truly strange and magical was afoot here, since I had just finished a story (a memoir) in which my father’s paint factory figured heavily. It wasn’t really a factory, more a factorylette in an outbuilding, and he went massively bankrupt on borrowed money within a year or two, which led in turn to our emigrating to Canada when I was a very young child — but the title was like my cellphone ringing with Mr. Slouka at the other end. “Hello? Hello? Yes, I’m here!” Not only that, but “virtues of idleness”?? Bliss, sheer bliss. How many times have I written on this site about the virtues of idleness, about how I hate the Nazi ethic of “work makes you free,” the whole filthy lie of it? And how many times have I written about my despair that American society in particular is beholden to this brand of fascist infiltration? How we homeschool, for example, because we don’t believe that work makes you free? And here was an article promising exactly my argument in Harper’s Magazine. Folks, I felt that I was the author — I was bursting with pride! But it gets better. Mark Slouka has written a really smart piece here, and I’m grateful that there’s a (presumably pirated) version online (there’s that “property rights extended to ideas” issue again…). Read it. The ending amazed me. Read it.

Meanwhile, on the blogs, people (mostly leftists) are debating The Rebel Sell in a way that again makes me despair. (Except read Heath’s response today on the 22nd on this page, and especially read the blog thread on This Magazine. For the most part, the critics just don’t get it, though, and it bothers me a lot because they want to bring moral “values” to the table, which is just what Bush and bin Laden are doing in their domains. Fuck “moral” values for the most part. Your morals aren’t my morals.)

And so I enter, and sometimes I leave again, quickly. Maybe more later, if I come back. For now, it’s telling that even this didn’t cheer me up:

Virginia Woolf: Orlando. You are a challenge, for
outer events, the outside world, the time etc.
play no importance to you. Your focus is in
writing, in gender issues, and inside your own
head. Self-analysis and exploration of yourself
as well as the outer world hold great
importance to you.

Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla


Shelley November 24, 2004 at 4:53 pm

First, thank you for reading my site daily, though I’m not sure I’m providing that much of interest to read daily.

It sounds like you and I are both going through a time with weblogs lately, where you almost feel angry about them, but not so angry that you can stay away. So you hesitantly come back, hoping to find something, and I’m not sure what, only to find that anger growing again. And it’s not even a rational anger.

Weblogging is much like the covers of the magazines at the stands, with horror sitting side by side with chat about lipstick.

Ah well, I guess we’re here until we’re not.

maria November 24, 2004 at 5:58 pm

Yule, thanks for reading my blog and I am sorry that lately the fare has gotten a bit bloated with too much sugar here and too much starch there…

Shelley’s point about our difficulty with both staying and leaving certainly makes one wonder waht is it about blogging that has us in such binds. I don’t have the answer, and I am nto looking too hard either — being afraid of what I might find.

As for that quiz … guess what? I just did it myself and it turns out that I am Orlando as well! Hmmm

Shelley November 24, 2004 at 6:43 pm

I am…

“J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Rings. You are entertaining and imaginative, creating whole new worlds around yourself. Well loved, you have a whole league of imitators, none of which is quite as profound as you are. Stories and songs give a spark of joy in the middle of your eternal battle with the forces of evil.”

Yule Heibel November 24, 2004 at 10:30 pm

My daughter was Name of the Rose, my son Picture of Dorian Gray, my husband 1984 — eeks!

Shelley, I got your comment first, but had to run out with the dog. Thought about response(s), came home, and saw Maria’s comment (and email, too: thanks!). No discounting of selves, please. Shelley, the only problem I have with you is that you write so g-d much — I have time to stop by once, sometimes twice, but if I blink and miss the “twice,” you’ve gone and posted 3 more entries all in that one day!

On to the issue at hand. The thing is, I beat myself up when I get angry and immoderate online, as I doubtlessly did with this entry. Felt badly about it right away, but I’m also not sure how to get around things sometimes without just exploding a tiny bit. I think — my “Orlando” casting notwithstanding — that my anger is often political, particularly in the present instance of venting. Instead of writing another post about politics, though, I sort of rolled everything into a sticky ball of wax (or a spitball …furball?) and let it fly.

Here’s the thing that bugs me with communities (and I realise Frank hadn’t even raised that issue with his question “why blog?”): I appreciate that real communities (and I’m thinking of actual neighbourhoods, schools, etc.) benefit from the sort of balance that allows the community to appear “stable” (it’s an illusion, of course, in the sense that the community in fact has to be dynamic). But “discursive communities” don’t seem to work in the same way and don’t seem to derive any benefits from balance (real or imagined), while their dynamism creates a completely new set of problems vs. benefits. In active discursive communities, too often the walls go up, groupie mentalities develop, and mob-mentality sets in. I hate that. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the discursive community is left or right, either. In either case, orthodoxies develop, groupies (or trolls) start hanging around, and discourse seems to stall because it has to be either in agreement with the flavour of the blog, or it isn’t and then it serves as a polariser. Polarised discourse isn’t really the most effective or efficient venue for exploring the issues, though.

Let me unpack this a bit more by explaining why, in particular, I’m so angry about some political issues. I am really really fed up with a lot of stuff written up on leftwing blogs, from anti-war to anti-consumerism. (Note: I don’t read the rightwing blogs because as far as I’m concerned they’re beyond the pale.) What really brought the issue to a head for me was the Heath and Potter discussion on This Magazine and on The Tyee (both of which I link to in this post), as well as on Dave Pollard’s How to Save the World blog (which I didn’t link to; his entry was on Nov.19). If you read the comments, you can see some dynamic exchanges (at least on This Magazine’s site), but you can also see the process of creating solid walls. A wall that shuts down dissenting opinion, for how can you dissent cogently in a comments box, especially if you know that the blog’s community is already rigged against dissent? A wall that creates a community where everyone inside the community can feel safe and “in tune” with everyone else. A wall that’s stupid. You can take the issue to your own blog, which is what I should have done I guess, but haven’t had the time or energy for. Really, Heath’s work in particular is so important to understand, especially now, at this juncture, yet the people commenting haven’t read his books (I’ve only read The Efficient Society — brilliant book, but lousy title: I’d change it) and the people commenting instead keep repeating the same truisms. The comments on This Magazine are more open, possibly because Potter is weighing in a lot. On The Tyee, however, it’s the same thing over and over: the environmentalists, the vegans, the animal rights people, the unionists, and the old lefties all claiming that their calls to action and their personal choices do make a difference in the world, and that Heath & Potter are just full of hot air. And a couple of proud disclaimers thrown in by some that they haven’t read the book. Yup, I guess the bleeding hearts work by instinct. They’re starting to make me as nervous as the rightwing with their freaking moral values.

I think it’s on The Tyee thread where one person notes that s/he is a vegan because s/he can’t abide the suffering brought to factory-farm-raised animals, whether they’re raised to produce meat, eggs, or milk, and s/he suggests that more people should make this choice rather than do other things (like write books about consumerism?). Great, so implicitly, this person’s solution to saving the world would be to impose his/her morality on everyone by asking us to all make the same decision. “No, no,” this person would protest, “I’m not asking you to do anything! It’s your choice, just as it was mine.” Bullshit. What’s implied is that you either make the “right,” the “ethical” choice and forego animal products, or continue to let the world go to hell in a handbasket. This is so dumb! And it’s precisely why those folks with their moral and ethical choices should read The Efficient Society so as to understand that certain legislative changes will make more of a real-world difference for everyone than the “individual” or “personal” choice of the individual consumer could. (And furthermore, that individual consumer with the higher values? S/he makes him- or herself increasingly unattractive to me because s/he is moralising about the choices: I do not want to be a vegetarian! I do not want to live by your code of sexuality! I want to live in a city! I don’t want to go back to the land, or to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, or be freely available in some happy-ever-after promiscutopia! I want medical technologies! I mean, what next? Laws of god???) In today’s political climate, where we are threatened with “moral values” inundation courtesy of Bush and bin Laden, why would I want to turn to someone who promises even more morals?

On the other hand, in The Efficient Society, Heath explains things from an economic perspective that I suppose is a lot less exciting than “forces of good and evil” or huge blanket statements about the psychotic aspects of our society or how America is going to cause Armageddon or conspiracy theories (ooh, now that’s exciting). No, this is just economics, but it’s really really useful. And guess what? I’ll take my chances with the economists (or in Heath & Potter’s case, philosophers who understand economics). What Heath is proposing is not an overthrow of capitalism and markets, but continued work on the welfare state to make it more efficient. He’s furthermore very clear that this is what sets us (Canadians) apart from Americans who value individual liberty more than efficiency. His book is full of examples of how Americans tolerate terribly costly and socially destructive inefficiencies in the name of liberty (hence the book’s doofy subtitle — “Why Canada is as close to Utopia as it gets”). Close to the end of the book, he notes:

The chief danger to the welfare state is not that it will be dismantled out of malice or indifference, but that it will be dismantled through ignorance. If we fail to realize the contribution that the state makes to our quality of life, we may inadvertently destroy what we have built. The most persistent danger is that we will fall into a race to the bottom with the United States. We would be well advised to avoid this. Americans have proven, time and again, that when it comes to tolerating inefficiency, they will always have the upper hand. We [Canadians] simply don’t care enough about liberty to make it worthwhile for us [Canadians] to compete with them [Americans].

It does make me nervous that America’s values-driven crusade of the moment could infect enough people to make us become more American. It’s not about creating a society that’s like a lottery game, where one individual has a “chance” of striking it rich (the American model). An efficient society, as Heath defines it, has as its goal “to satisfy people’s needs, or to satisfy as many needs as possible given the available resources.” (p.129) The state has a big part to play in this.

But back to the vegan comment, in closing. How would economic and social efficiency help address the problem of animal suffering brought about in large part by the “logic” of factory farming? For starters, the factory farm would have to be charged the full cost of what it is doing, costs that include social burdens impinging on collective property rights. The market can’t (won’t) do this, the state can. Say we agree that we all have a right to clean air, but the factory farm’s feed lots pollute the air since the industrial farmers might even burn manure and make everyone sick. The farmer is effectively dumping pollution (into the air) without being charged for the costs, because the markets can’t adjust for negative externalities. The only agency that can is the state. Furthermore, unless the state steps in and charges producers (in Heath’s example, pig farmers, but it could be anything) for the cost of cleaning up messes, the market will be inefficient because the pig farmer will figure out how many pigs to raise by determining the cost of raising them and the price at which he can sell them. But he doesn’t have to factor in the full cost of managing the waste he creates (he pays for manure disposal perhaps, but not for stink/ air pollution disposal). Therefore, his calculations will be skewed, and the result is an overproduction of pigs, which benefits the pig-eaters, but not the others involved (and certainly hurts the neighbours near the pig farm who still breathe in the smell):

Because of the negative externality, society will wind up with an excess of both pigs and stink. This means that efficiency gains could still be achieved by shifting resources out of pig farming and into something else. But the market cannot be counted upon to do this shifting; in fact, it will actively work against any such shift.

This is hugely significant. Whenever there are negative externalities, it means that markets will stubbornly overproduce the goods that create these externalities as by-products. Even worse, producers have a constant incentive to find new and better ways to externalize their costs. Pig farmers have to pay for disposal of their manure only because property rights protect land from dumping. But if they burn the manure, then they can get rid of it for free because markets don’t regulate the use of air. So even if burning it is much more harmful to society than burying, imperfections in the market may give farmers an incentive to dispose of it that way. This is grotesquely inefficient.

What we call “environmental problems” are for the most part market failures of this type. If firms do not have to pay for waste disposal, they will generate too much waste. This sort of pollution is clearly a bad thing. However, when a firm is polluting, it also suggests that too much of a certain good is being produced. The fact that the firm is polluting shows that its cost structure is out of synch with the social cost. Thus society takes a double hit from an efficiency standpoint — first through the pollution itself, and then through the overproduction of unwanted goods. pp.127-128

Whether or not I forego pork chops and become a vegan, pig farms will continue to exist. The real issue is that they will continue to overproduce, based on $$-calculations that leave out the true costs to society (negative externalities), unless the state corrects for the market inefficiency. To “fix” this sort of social problem, I would prefer the kind of efficiency-oriented approach advocated by Heath over the moral appeal to become a vegetarian. The latter simply isn’t going to shift society. I can still be a vegetarian anyway, but unless I also lobby my representative to take political and legislative action, it won’t amount to a hill of beans that I’m not having that chop. This is incredibly relevant right now in regard to fish “farms,” a blight on the landscape and a sinkhole of “negative externalities.” Call your MLA on that!

In the blogosphere, you get a lot of vegan-types (on the left) and NRA-types (on the right) who think they’re Archimedes reincarnated, able to shift the world from their little point on it. I think that’s what’s driving me crazy. Well, that, and the dreaded A-listers (a uniquely American species) who are the lottery players on the landscape, the great defenders of liberty, regardless of how inefficient their “discourse” might be. It benefits them and “the dream,” and that’s what counts if you’re a …player.

Yule Heibel November 24, 2004 at 10:39 pm

PS: the fact that the word ‘personal’ shows up as a link to a post from over 18 months ago is a fluke. When I started blogging, I used to make links differently: anything in quotation marks, if set up as a link, will show up as one. But when I read the entry, I decided to let it stay. I guess it’s a then and now thing.

Shelley November 25, 2004 at 12:48 am

Yule, you’ve hit on so much I want to respond to but it’s almost midnight my time, so will have to wait until tomorrow.

But on your sentence, “In the blogosphere, you get a lot of vegan-types (on the left) and NRA-types (on the right) who think they’re Archimedes reincarnated, able to shift the world from their little point on it. I think that’s what’s driving me crazy.”

Bang on, and not just for me. I think this would connect with more than one person I read. It is reflected in the question that is going around, if we change the emphasis: why _do_ we blog?

maria November 25, 2004 at 3:31 pm

Yule, you just switched on the light for me, when you said this: “But “discursive communities” don’t seem to work in the same way and don’t seem to derive any benefits from balance (real or imagined), while their dynamism creates a completely new set of problems vs. benefits. In active discursive communities, too often the walls go up, groupie mentalities develop, and mob-mentality sets in.”

I, for one, have been an outsider in most of the real communities in which I tried to put down roots of sorts. Happening on the Web and this whole blogging business, was like a second second or third third chance at being part of something that resembles a community – not the real one your refer to when you talk about the dynamics that is its life, but an idealized family of sorts from some sanitized Grimm fairy tale. Like Odysseus at sea, I heard some siren call, but unlike Odysseus, I keep forgetting about that “ball of wax” and off I go to the rocky shores in pursuit of fish tails and scaly tales, if you like.

I think you are absolutely right to point to the problems (and I would also say “costs”) membership in “discursive communities” incurs. Now, I am not agreeing here with you in order to display my membership colors in this particular “discursive community” or simply proving your point by agreeing with you in order to shore up the flavor of your blog. I am saying this, and here I maybe getting into trouble with the readers of my blog, because I have noticed how my own blog, which started with aspirations of bluntness, is slowly turning into blandness in order to appeal to a regular set of readers. It’s as if my desire to be liked and to be belong has trumped my desire to be long and wide on issues I like to flay and debone with words.

I live on the edge vicariously now, letting Shelley and you hone the blades, spill the guts, trail the entrails, while I add a bit of dressing and a hint of spice here and there.

You are right, Yule, in hinting at the idea that blogging has become a new form of social control, of regulated intersubjectivity. It may have started out as a search for widening meaning and a way to construct a wider self, but with the regulation of dissent that you note in the processes that polarize online and discursive communities, there has been nothing but regulated retreat.

Another issue that haunts me with blogs and blog communities is the way in which the graphomania associated with the flood of posts and comments washes away not only dissent (dynamics, dialectics … etc.), but also meaning itself. And, because I have Thanksgiving turkey to cook, I am going to give a rather long quote here, instead of trying to make the argument myself. The quote is from Alice W. Flaherty’s “The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain”:

Narrating the world into existence can reflect our need for contact with what psychoanalysts chillingly call the Object, and the rest of us call other people. “Over the years I’ve come to realize that my greatest fear in life is a dread of a certain kind of solitude, of abandonment,” wrote Francine du Plessix Gray. “And I’ve come to know that by writing I’m creating a presence which fills that solitude, which takes the place of some ideal Other.” The novelist Milan Kundera described the same situation more bleakly [in my humble opinion … and that’s me Maria speaking here – more realistically]. In the process, he coined the useful term “graphomania”:

“The reason we write books is that our kids don’t give a damn. We turn to an anonymous world because our wife stops up her ears when we talk to her….Let us define out terms. A woman who writers her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac, she is simply a woman in love. But my friend who Xeroxes his love letters so he can publish them someday – my friend is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers.)”

Graphomania, the desire to be published, thus exists in partial distinction from hypergraphia, which is merely an excessive desire to write. Kundera argued that graphomania arises from emotional isolation and ennui, and “takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

1) A high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;
2) An advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual;
3) A radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel.)”

For Kundera, mass graphomania threatens the meaning of the written word because the resulting flood of words drowns out the chance for anyone to be heard. Yet he was writing in 1980, even before the tidal wave of the Internet. After Kundera’s marvelous cynicism, it would perhaps be banal to be optimistic. In fact, though, the Web’s flood has so far been surprisingly well channeled with powerful search engines (again, technology helping writing) and has successfully allowed isolated people to connect to one another. It is perhaps not the existence of the Web diaries or blogs, but the fact that many other people read them is the marvel.”

Flaherty’s concerns are obviously with “graphomania,” so she does not delve into the dangers of the creation of the “Other” in the communities created on the Web. Okay … I must go set the table now and start roasting the squash and fennel and onions!

Yule Heibel November 25, 2004 at 6:56 pm

I know what you mean about trying to put down roots in real communities, Maria. The web has been a boon in terms of providing a substitute community that allows the kind of intensification I (and perhaps you) miss in real communities. If I may be so bold (or crass) as to compare the latter to dating and the former to freewheeling premarital sex (of which I am an advocate, but of course I’ve also been a veteran of nearly a quarter century of marriage now, but there were enough years before I tied the knot), then the PTA, the neighbourhood association, etc. is like the boring date with the conventional guy while the web is like those free days of yore when one could reveal incredible amounts of oneself to near strangers as well as try funky new things. Now, I said earlier “I don’t love the web,” but comparing it to freewheeling sex isn’t a contradiction. If I “sleep with” whoever’s online, I still don’t want to have breakfast with them. (Hmm, maybe that “Orlando” thing wasn’t so far off?) (But on the other hand, I’m probably just a diehard Marxist, albeit the Groucho variety [“wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member…”].) At any rate, I’m not married to my webpages, or my online world.

As for those quotes …wow. I have to read them over when I have more time and think about them some more. The graphomania problem Kundera describes cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, doesn’t it? Now, I think the technology does play into it in a couple of ways, though. He was mostly concerned with books, and it’s true that publishing a book is somehow different than publishing a blog online where people can come back and comment, and then you (author) feel compelled to comment back, etc. If the blog is like premarital sex (frequent, unattached, often anonymous, playful, lots of fun, wild, passionate, revolving), the book is …I don’t know, different. Maybe I have too much sex on the brain? I should shut up before I get into real trouble here! But perhaps part of the pressure I don’t like about discursive communities is the pressure to form a “commitment,” when it’s essentially a forum where commitment doesn’t hold. I’m married to ideas?

This passage, “For Kundera, mass graphomania threatens the meaning of the written word because the resulting flood of words drowns out the chance for anyone to be heard,” definitely bears thinking about. Maybe if everyone’s in the sack with everyone else, no one gets to think and reflect about what all that stimulation means.

Days of bread and circuses….

brian moffatt December 2, 2004 at 10:17 am

And the question again was…what, Yule? Why do you blog? I don’t think you’ve given us enough details, really.

Yule, you are out of control! Which is of course why we come here.

This is right up there with Marek J Kombinat’s audioblog/self-negating manifesto on podcasting. Link somewhere on various blogs.

I was the Wasteland by TS Eliot, btw.

I had a conversation with a woman at the pool the other day. Bay Street business retired to the country to make babies and started a local magazine kinda lady. She said a couple of remarkable things. But one that stuck was this: I have no escape route or escape hatch. For all my life, I always left a door for myself. To escape.

The next time I speak with her I’m going to suggest she blog. Blogging is an escape hatch. Granted you’re escaping das boot and entering into the world of the incredible mr limpet, but still…

The best line in the whole ‘why do you blog’ thing is this, I think, from a Vancouver blogger – which is not included at the IT Kitchen:

I see myself as a walking dichotomy of a person who needs a lot of time alone and space to herself, yet almost simultaneously craves human contact.

Active idleness, treading water, watching the strange fishes, keeping in

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