by Yule Heibel on January 31, 2005

Thanks to Shelley Powers for pointing out Better Bad News’ hard-hitting, ultra-investigative, and naturally fair and balanced 15 minute video satire / follow-up on the all-important blogosphere question (ahem), started by Ethan Zuckerman: Should David Weinberger be compared favourably to Lenny Bruce? I haven’t laughed this hard in a while — BBN’s “report” is hilarious. True, too. And I’m not being compensated to say so, see?

Who are these guys? Their About page notes that they are

…the personal video blog of George Coates designed by George Coates and Michael Hauser working closely with creative individuals in arts and technology including Dan Corr, Kurt Reinhardt, Mantra Plonsey, Annie Larson, David Winter, Jude Haucom, Karen Ripley, Zulu Spear, David Burian, Betty Halpern Eddy Falconer, Bonnie Hughes, James King and many others including students from the Berkeley Adult School class ; Public Speaking For The Camera, John Parkin, Paul Livingston, Jasper Summer, Ben Ross, Chris Read, and Ana Vasconcellos using facilities and services provided by Berkeley Community Media, Brian Scott, and The Berkeley Arts Festival.

BBN adds that this video blog exists “To develop new strategies for surviving the ongoing culture war responsible for the steady and strategic de-funding of independent creative voices in the arts, including small presses, experimental theaters, and alternative media and to provide opportunities for non-commercial voices to be heard in networked media environments.” Well, something to check out further. Plenty of links to follow on their pages! But make sure you see their Blogging Incredibility and Journalism video.

Because of it, I finally listened to David Weinberger’s talk — not something I usually do, listen to my computer, that is. David spoke at a recent conference, held at Harvard, that dealt with blogging, journalism, integrity, and credibility — hence, among other numerous (and goofy) abbreviations, its moniker, Webcred. He is very funny (I’ll stay away from comparisons to Lenny Bruce, though), but after his pointed critique of the Dewey Decimal System (DDS), and an excellent (and funny) discussion of philosophic ways of discussing ethics, he offers some defintions of that made me feel really sad.

Speaking of the DDS, he notes that taxonomies are not reflections of nature, right? They are tools. In the blogosphere, the cool taxonomic revolution that’s taking the internet by storm is called tagging (see Shelley again for some excellent explanation — and beautiful photos, too). (For once, I was hooked early by this new thing of tagging when I started using Flickr months ago — tags immediately struck me as the most amazing tool; unfortunately, I haven’t had time to use Flickr consistently since that initial burst, although it’s on my to-do agenda to upgrade my account there and to start uploading lots of photos. Eventually… 😉

Now, David seems to have no problem letting the tools be tools, and letting individuals use tools as they see fit, provided that there is some sense of whether or not the tools are being used in ethical ways. (David tips his hat to Heidegger here, making a well-placed funny joke about Heidegger’s Nazism — listen to the talk.) Modern morality should be based on a shared sense of being able to see the world as it appears to the Other, as well as learning to care about that perspective, about how it matters to somebody else. This is a way of developing a sense of morality which is based not on religion, or on philosophy, but on stories — novels in particular (David refers to Richard Rorty here) — as platforms for understanding how we work out our moral issues today. Thinking of morality in this way allows us to consider it as something based in sympathy and in caring: a shared world that we care about.

When he begins to define blogs, however, I feel he falls into the trap of reifying them (albeit very, very dynamically and with lots of cool) to the point where they’re not just tools, but orders once again, which means that if you don’t conform, it’s not just the case that you’re using the tool in the “wrong” way, you’re not even in the workshop anymore. This bugs me.

David is famous for the phrase (paraphrasing here), “we write ourselves into existence,” which I find a compelling way to describe my own experiences, too. But why is there such a premium put on speed and quantity (of postings)? David says that “real” blogs are written daily, sometimes ten times daily, and that blogs which are updated only once a week or so are “borderline” blogs, they’re not “real” blogs, they are “not a good example of a weblog.” Why? His emphasis is on conversations, but why do they have to happen so quickly, and then, too, so ephemerally? I’ve had email conversations with David, and from what we have written each other, I’d say he is a very sincere person who invites sincere conversation. The emails were slow, I did not feel pressured to respond instantly, and I considered them most certainly to have been conversations. Must my bloggish conversations be so much faster? Why?

David notes that blogspaces have to be forgiving spaces, that you can’t revise and edit and revise and edit before posting. I agree with that — I write my entries in TextEdit (and remember, I’m not being compensated to say so — that’s how this started, right? credibility?), and I revise them for clarity, but not longer than over the course of an hour or two — I don’t have more time than that to devote to this. I’m a reasonably good speller, and despite a perhaps idiosyncratic love of the comma, my punctuation is fairly stable, so I don’t have to worry about SPAG (spelling and grammar) that much (except I think I just misspelled grammar…?). This doesn’t mean that I’m so neurotically closed off that I’m afraid to publish on the web half-baked opinion — I do that all the time. I really don’t care. Once it’s published, it’s gone: that’s my philosophy. I never understood my fellow grad students who worried every single sentence to death and refused to send anything to the publisher if it wasn’t “perfect,” because all I cared about was my message. I had something to say, and it was gonna get said, dammit. So, I agree with David that it’s a great thing that weblogging offers a giant tube of K-Y jelly to every tightass writer who can’t loosen up, but I disagree that this is a reason for increased speed. What’s wrong with slow?

Conversations don’t have to be fast, and besides: fast is always a competition, and when you start getting into competitiveness, you lose me. I can’t compete with you, or at least I don’t want to. Conversations, David says, are the lifeblood of weblogging, but the way “conversation” starts getting defined here turns that art into a competition. The conversation becomes a question of having conversations in comments, of having conversations with other webloggers, especially by linking to them profusely, and the goal is to have different perspectives in conversation with one another. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I feel that the problem is that you’re starting to define conversation as a fast-paced essentially inward-closing circle.

David says that “the heft and value of objectivity now can be had through multiple subjectivity,” and that “the world of meaning is shot through with humanness.” That sounds wonderful, but do those multiple subjectivities have to arrive at the speed of light? For all my virtual “presence,” I’m still a real body in space, and I don’t want to be that fast. David notes that the “infusion of human meaning” is happening in “spheres that were previously considered apart from or impervious to that infusion,” and that it’s happening in a space (the web) that’s “incredibly messy, disorganised,” etc. Yet the emphasis is on linking to specific threads in that sloppy messy pile of spaghetti: those threads are the conversations that matter (and what matters is what will organise those messes), and the point is to suck those conversations up as quickly as possible. (David uses autumn leaf piles as his metaphor, “rolling in the leaves,” but we’ve got mostly evergreens here, so I’ll stick to spaghetti…) Sucking it up as fast as possible is an order I can’t follow.

It just sounds too much like imposing a fast, competitive, wolfish perspective on something that doesn’t have to be that way, but that probably will be that way if business-as-usual has anything to do with it. This is how BBN’s Blogging Incredibility and Journalism video concludes (and again, I’m paraphrasing): Corporate culture kills, even though today it dresses itself up to look “cool” with that spiffy corporate shine on everything. Simulating our low production values, it’s figuring out the Cluetrain in its endeavour to hijack the coming counter-culture. We don’t have much time until David Weinberger gets to them to help them realise what’s coming. Right now they [the corporatists] are lone wolves gathering audiences, they’re under the radar…

Isn’t it the case that the key attribute of any predatory approach is that it has to keep up to speed? Fast matters, so perhaps I’m wrong and David is right, even if I think it’s depressing that “real” blogs only happen at virtual warp speed. I hear that death is famous for being fast, too…


maria February 1, 2005 at 1:03 pm

A great post, Yule–and I am with you on that argument with speed.
Seeing how I am also a body in space, with time constraints and demands
on my attention right now, I don’t have the luxury to develop a lengthy
argument on why speed is ultimately counterproductive for that
conversation that is the “human” form of blogging … but I will try at
least to invoke a little help from Milan Kundera here, who wrote some
pretty interesting little asides about the effects of speed in his
novel “Slowness.” I am invoking a novelist, rather than a philosopher,
because the novelist is more likely to talk about the human experience,
rather than just he idea of it.
Anyway, at the beginning of the
novel [and I might have already quoted this, come to think of it …
here on your blog ] talks about Epicurus saying that the “Wise man
seeks no activity related to struggle,” and how this might have taken
by some as hedonism … or the pursuit of pleasure. He quotes this in
relation to the mores and literary forms of the eighteenth century, in
which we have come to assume that the goal was pleasure—but he argues
that the pleasure was in the conquest, in victory. [Okay, you are
wondering what this has to do with blogs and speed … hang on, I am
taking the slow route].
From this observation that conquest wins
over pleasure, even in the eighteenth century’s obsessions with the
pursuit of hedonism, he brings up an interesting point about the
“epistolary form” of “Les Liaisons dangereuse,” which, in my mind, is a
bit like the blog form of the past. Okay here is the quote then [with a
few edirotials in there]:
The epistolary form of
“Les Liaison dangereuse” is not merely a technical procedure that could
easily be replaced by another. The form is eloquent in itself, and it
tells us that whatever the characters have undergone they have
undergone for the sake of telling about it, for transmitting, for
communicating, confessing, writing it. [Sounds like blogging, doesn’t
it? Only ‘slower’] In such a world, where everything gets told, the
weapon that is both most readily available and most deadly is
disclosure. Valmont, the novel’s hero, sends the woman he has seduced a
farewell letter that will destroy her; and it is his lady friend, the
Marquise de Merteuil, who dictated it to him, word for word. Later, out
of vengeance, the Merteuil woman shows a confidential letter of
Valmont’s to his rival: the latter challenge him to a duel, and Valmont
dies. After his death, the intimate correspondence between him and
Merteuil will be disclosed, and the Marquise will end her days scorned,
hounded, and banished.
Nothing in this novel stays a secret
exclusive to two persons [blog links…]; everyone seems to live inside
an enormous resonating seashell where every whispered word
reverberates, swells, into multiple and unending echoes [add speed to
this, and it becomes just so much white noise, after a while, to the
human ear] when I was small, people would tell me that if I set a shell
against my ear, I would hear the immemorial murmur of the sea. In that
same way, every word pronounced in the Laclosian world goes on being
heard forever [ blog archives ] Is this what it is, the eighteenth
century? Is that the famous paradise of pleasure? Or has mankind always
lived inside such a resonating shell, without realizing it? Whatever
the case, a resonating seashell—that’s not the world of Epicurus, who
commended his disciples: “You shall live hidden.”
that speed, that piling up of posts, is an effort to, paradoxically,
both resonate (reveal) and hide, not just from each other, but from the
struggle with a corporeal world in which there are some serous
obstacles and limits to speed – where that bad cop, life, is just
waiting to issue us a speeding ticket….
And, here I am,
slapped with my fine …as I am typing this fast, trying to respond, to
your post, to engage in the conversation: my heart is racing, my
fingers aching, my neck getting stiff … and I just made myself late
by half an hour in terms of my chores for the rest of the day.
Byproducts of this speed in which the “sound” [soundness, or meaning]
of my comment has to travel faster than sound….

maria February 1, 2005 at 1:05 pm

oops … the comment came out in one long paragraph. That’s because i composed it in Word, to be able to see it all, then just pasted it in here … and I guess your system didn’t recognize the paragraph breaks. Sorry about that.

Yule Heibel February 1, 2005 at 1:52 pm

Another strange quirk of this blogging software, I guess — because I
could see where you put the paragraph breaks when I went into the
‘discuss’ window (available only to editors of this site, i.e., moi),
even though they didn’t show up in the comment as it appeared. So I
edited a few more linebreaks into your comment, where you had put
paragraph breaks, and now it should look as you intended.

Great comment, Maria, and lots to think about. This isn’t going
to be an adequate response on my part, since I, too, am in the middle
of dashing off somewhere, having already fallen behind schedule this
morning. But you make me want to head out to the library to get some
novels — I know I don’t read enough fiction, focussing always on
non-fiction, theory, blah-blah, and so on, but what Kundera suggests
here, about the Dangerous Liaisons, is so interesting and compelling
that I really want to delve into it. Ironically, my problem with
fiction is that it often doesn’t move fast enough. Is that perverse or what?

But you know, I realise Carol Shields isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I did finally read her novel Larry’s Party
some months ago, and it’s fascinating to note how its quiet lessons
have stayed in my mind after all this time. And yes, they’re there
because Shields managed to make me sympathise with another’s
perspective, deepening my own. Nothing happened quickly in the novel,
btw! 😉

PS: Caveat: even though I wrote this comment in the comments-window
directly, without intermediating text software, my paragraph breaks
didn’t show up either.  Put < br > into the text or
quadruple-space between paragraphs.

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